Prize Possession

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!



Tim Mangan of the Orange County Register lists ten recordings of works that serve as a newby's introduction to musical Modernism. It's a fine list, and I won't spoil it for you by reprinting it here.

In a his comment on a piece that interpolates sketches from a 19th century composer's music with the 20th century composer's original music, Mr. Mangan describes the original music as "atonal but exquisitely so". This is really picky, I know, but I wish he had not phrased it that way, unless of course he generally finds atonality less than exquisite. (The rest of the article doesn't read that way.)

I would rather have seen "exquisitely atonal" or "atonal, and exquisitely so". Again, I'm being picky, but I think it's better if we don't use negatively charged language in our attempts to promote our music.

[Edited on 8 Mar 14 to fix a typo.]


What Mahler Tells Me

Today is Gustav Mahler’s 150th birthday.

My first encounter with Mahler was playing the bass trombone part in a performance of the First Symphony in North Carolina in the mid-1970s. The Symphony, with its themes of the newness of life, discovery, and triumph, was a perfect introduction for me at about 20 and at the very beginning of finding my way as a musician, composer, and human being.

To learn this piece from the inside, as it were, embedded in me just how entwined composing and performing are. It was the first time I had ever played in such a big, complex piece. So much of what I learned from it has been with me since then that it’s hard to say specifically what happened. But something did—something clicked.

I’ve probably heard the Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) performed more than any other piece of music (with Cage’s 4’33” a close second), and it’s always very moving, even when the performance doesn’t quite make it. The striving of an ensemble playing and singing near or even a little beyond its limits embodies part of Mahler’s poetic vision for this piece.

My favorite Mahler symphony is the Sixth, with its clear, rigorous form and content that strains at that form. Mahler’s was at his height as an orchestrator in the Sixth, and every page yields a revelation of orchestration and/or counterpoint. Many of the Symphony’s most effective passages are a result of the composer’s deft, imaginative orchestration of simple counterpoint, sometimes with as few as two voices. That such dark expression can come from such simple, clear means has always struck me as one of the mysteries of art.

“The symphony is the world; it must contain everything.” Mahler’s famous dictum* applies to his entire output even more than it does to individual works. Without drawing too fine a point on it, his symphonies and songs sketch out an artistic biography moving from the impetuosity of youth in the early pieces, through a thoughtfully fervent maturity, finally to the resignation and acceptance embodied in the last works, Das Lied von der Erde (“Song of the Earth”) and the Ninth Symphony.

The orchestras are as big in these last works as they were in the earlier symphonies, but here Mahler has reduced his art to its essential elements. The effects and climaxes are as stunning and as moving as ever, but the means are smaller, the brushstrokes finer. The emotions are raw, but expressed without histrionics. What we get from Mahler at the end, something he never had in his tumultuous life, is peace.

* A word on dicta. When an artist makes a statement like Mahler’s, he’s really just speaking for himself. He may want you to think he is prescribing an approach for everybody, but he isn’t; he’s describing his own, and hoping you’ll take it seriously. If you take these dicta too seriously, you end up with a headache, and a bad case of style wars.