There is nothing quite like the annual announcement of the Pulitzer Prize for Music to inspire skepticism and celebration in equal measure. It has a reputation for being a career-maker—but what does it actually do? While prizes don’t help composers win more prizes, I have found through my study of the Pulitzer that they are far from purposeless: they build networks of opportunity that promote their winners with funding, social and political connections, and brand-name prestige. At the heart of the Pulitzer’s power are its connotations of excellence and expertise, which often translate an endorsement for one “distinguished” piece into an endorsement for its composer. These kinds of transformations are part of what catapulted its youngest recipient, Caroline Shaw, into the national spotlight after her 2013 win for Partita for 8 Voices. At the release of Partita for 8 Voices on Roomful of Teeth’s debut album, she was “virtually unknown outside New York City classical circles,” but in the wake of her Pulitzer win, Shaw’s recognition snowballed, quickly placing her in the thick of new scenes and broader networks.
For those of us on the outside, it is hard to know what to do with a prize that amplifies outstanding and deserving musical contributions like Shaw’s, while knowing that it does so through the process of competition. Implicit in the act of distinction—good from bad, winners from losers—is the idea that some pieces are better than others. Yet, winner-take-all judgments of music fail to recognize the exceptional achievements of the other pieces in contention; even distinguishing between “winners” and “finalists” establishes an uncalled-for hierarchy.
With the overwhelming, almost obligatory presence of the introduction “Pulitzer Prize-winning composer” in the media, it is difficult to downplay the Pulitzer’s symbolic importance as an indication of legitimacy. It begs an important question: how can one institution fairly determine for an entire field what is and isn’t quality? While many composers are grateful for the much-needed support a prize like the Pulitzer can provide, an acknowledgement of its role in upholding these hierarchies gives rise to rightfully-conflicted opinions about its selections. By looking at the Pulitzer’s early history, we can identify these clashes of perspective, and how they shape our perception of the prize today.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2018 Pulitzer win for DAMN. has all but confirmed the change in the prize’s public image from an institution lagging behind contemporary music’s values and priorities to one at the forefront. Historically, though, sentiments were far less optimistic, stemming from a distaste for increasingly “academic” selections.
From the first prize in 1943 through the late 1980s, the Pulitzer’s administrators were often at odds with their specialist juries. In the first decade, the jury’s selections went unquestioned, ranging widely from orchestral pieces and operas to ballets and film scores. However, as time went on, an unvarying pool of jurors chose one orchestral work after another. Between 1975 and 1999, all but six winning works were for orchestra, and all but two of their composers were male.
To the public’s chagrin, the pieces selected by the Pulitzer jury were becoming increasingly rarefied, and celebration of the Pulitzer’s winners gave way to vehement criticism. Kyle Gann released a series of incendiary comments about the prize in 1991 and 1992 in The Village Voice, in which he remarked:
Given to academic composers by other academic composers, the Pulitzer has become a reward for conformity and a compensation prize for ineffectuality.
His writing highlights how perceptions of the Pulitzer’s unquestioned prestige had given way to a sense of elitism and irrelevance.
One year after Gann’s tirade, the Pulitzer was embroiled in a controversy surrounding the 1992 prize, awarded to Wayne T. Peterson for The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark. Sometime following the award announcement, it came to light that Peterson had never been in serious contention for the jury’s nomination—instead, they preferred Ralph Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique. The submissions were so scant that year that the jury forwarded only Shapey’s piece to the Board, knowingly defiant of a 1985 protocol requiring that the three Pulitzer nominees be submitted as an unranked list. Upon listening to Shapey’s piece, the Board rejected the selection out of hand, demanding another piece for consideration. The jury complied and forwarded Peterson’s work. In the weeks following, two jurors collaborated to produce a statement:
The Pulitzer Prize Board’s action in modifying the music jury’s decision this year is especially alarming because it occurred without consultation and without knowledge of either our standards or rationale. Such alterations by a committee without professional musical expertise guarantees, if continued, a lamentable devaluation of this uniquely important award.
New York Times critic Alan Kozinn contends that it was not an aesthetic judgement that led to Shapey’s rejection, but the Board’s seizure of power from the music jury.
After years of discussions and negotiations, the Board reached an official agreement in 1996 to expand the range of styles of work considered, explicitly aimed at making jazz eligible. The jury for the following year’s prize (Howard Reich, John Harbison, John Lewis, Joseph Schwantner, and Robert E. Ward) helped to solidify their commitment: included in the three finalists was Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis, which the Board selected as the 1997 winner.
Despite some advances, many critics felt that these changes (along with additional special citations for George Gershwin, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington) were at best, a “band-aid,” and the Board responded to this criticism. On June 1, 2004, a press release announced that the wording of the Plan of Award had changed yet again–a requirement for only three composers on the five-member jury was formalized, leaving room on future juries for participation from other musical sub-disciplines.
Taken together, these rule changes show the Pulitzer’s sensitivity to the field’s criticism, but they also show us how inextricably tangled and deeply entrenched prestige and systemic bias can become. Certainly, the state of affairs is different now than it was in 2004. The changes to jury structures and the concentration of power in the Board are reflected in the past decade’s winners—not only is a different generation of composers and artists taking home the prize, but their compositions speak to a new emphasis on global identities and political themes.
There is still an insistent tension between the world of possibility that Lamar’s win has opened up, and the concrete realities of the Pulitzer’s selections as they stand. Whole genres, idioms, aesthetics remain ignored. But a decades-long process to amend the rules and regulations speak to the Pulitzer’s willingness to listen to its critics. At a time when institutional reform can sound like an outlandish, even laughable idea, the Pulitzer’s Administration proves that change is a possibility when someone is listening. The Pulitzer’s prestige is reliant on our own acceptance of its arbitration. So, how will the Pulitzer represent American music in the coming years? Can it continue to do so accurately with a requirement for United States citizenship?
While I raise more questions than answers, the ultimate conclusion of my research is that the Pulitzer’s efficacy as a representative of American music is always an open question. In reality, we decide what to do with, and how to feel about, Pulitzer prizewinners of the present. As we form opinions about how, why, and for whom we feel there should be changes to its processes or administrators, there are questions that we as the receivers of the Pulitzer’s quasi-canon should ask ourselves. Do I, you, we feel represented? And if we don’t, what should we do? As we approach the announcement of the 2019 winner on Monday, April 15th, it is well worth keeping in mind that the Pulitzer’s selections provide a burst of attention for one composer–but it is up to the field whether to support that winner’s momentum. It remains our responsibility to continue listening, adding our own selections of “distinguished” American music along the way.