The Pulitzer Prize in music: Still out of tune

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 18.04.2014

The $10,000 Music Pulitzer Prize went this year to Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, launching a heated debate in the music world over who was – or wasn’t – most deserving of this perpetually controversial award.

One exasperated critic present at the premiere tells me Adams’s winning composition, Become Ocean, seemed unworthy. He slammed its “interminable arpeggios up and down, rising and backing off again -- territory already plowed by the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.” (The title comes from the late John Cage who wrote of a piece by Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.”)

Adams himself made the composition sound almost trivial: “It really wrote itself,” he told an interviewer at National Public Radio (NPR). “All I had to do is sleep with the windows open at night and let the sound of the sea seep into my subconscious mind and get up in the morning and write it down.” Divine intervention? George Frideric Handel said something similar about his Messiah, but that’s another story.

Adams openly admits that global warming was the backdrop of the piece, telling NPR that climate change is always on his mind. “It was certainly at the forefront as I composed this piece,” he said.

The composition has not yet been recorded and has had only one public outing, barely meeting the rigorous Pulitzer requirements. Adams missed the premiere because of emergency eye surgery but he plans to be present at Carnegie Hall May 6 when the Seattle Symphony will bring it to an East Coast audience. Seattle conductor and music director Ludovic Morlot, who commissioned the work, will be on the podium.

In this interesting clip, attendees at the premiere last June deliver their off-the-cuff reactions as excerpts, intercut with samples from the performance.

Leading critics disagree over the Pulitzer jury’s choice, some asking to what extent Adams’ work might influence future composition trend? In this case, that will be pretty close to zero, it seems to me. From what I have heard of Become Ocean, the music breaks no new ground and strives too hard to be accessible. Given the choice, I would rather listen to Debussy’s La Mer any day.

Yet in a gutsy bit of programming, Morlot has decided to pair up La Mer with Adams’ work for the Carnegie Hall performance. It will be a rare opportunity to compare the two in real time. Adams and Morlot should be braced for critical barbs.

One thoughtful violinist in a major orchestra goes beyond a mere criticism of Adams’ compositional output. She and others believe the music jury has been excessively swayed by a few prominent music writers who have in the past found fault with the entire process and now occupy positions of unhealthy influence. Today, she said, “one small-minded aesthetic has been replaced by another.”

Controversy and manipulation cast a long shadow in the Pulitzer music world, and she put it in perspective: “The Pulitzer used to be awarded only to academic composers no one listened to,” she recalled for me. “Then critics and bloggers like Kyle Gann, Alex Ross, and others knocked the Pulitzer and urged a style that they considered more forward-looking,” favoring such names as Steve Reich, David Lang, the Bang on a Can movement and even John Luther Adams.

“Ironically,” she concluded, “the revolutionaries of yesterday but have become the dictators of today. Now it's the turn of Adams and others to reap the rewards, but no progress has actually been made.”

But Alex Ross, music writer of The New Yorker magazine, has become the main “dictator” today. A friend of the composer, he was so impressed he allowed his prose to turn purple after hearing Become Ocean in Seattle last June. “Like the sea at dawn,’ he wrote, “it presents a gorgeous surface, yet its heaving motion conveys overwhelming force. Whether orchestras will be playing it a century hence is impossible to say, but I went away reeling.”

The jury found more purple prose to express its adulation, calling it “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels”.

The respected West Coast critic Melinda Bargreen was less bowled over, and noted that some of the audience even walked out. The piece “was a rather murky ‘ocean’ at first,” she wrote in the Seattle Times, “with deep rumblings that slowly evolved in complexity… But after the first 20 minutes or so, the musical ideas had pretty much run their course, and there were no further developments to justify sustaining the piece. Some listeners in the balcony areas made a discreet but early retreat.”

The other John Adams composer (no relation to this year’s winner, who added his middle name “Luther” to distinguish himself from his more famous namesake) won the prize in 2003. He subsequently wrote, “I am astonished to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism.”

Indeed, the music Pulitzer has something of the poor cousin about it, barely winning mention in mainstream media where newspaper writing, fiction and drama grab the biggest headlines. In the Pulitzer official listings, music always comes last, almost with a whimper.

Although Ross includes no disclaimer in his writings, his friendship with Adams goes back several years. He has traveled to Alaska to spend time with him in the northern wilderness. And he has written that Adams reminds him of the actor Clint Eastwood, and “speaks in a similarly soft, husky voice”. He gives off a “regular guy coolness”, Ross writes.

Was the jury swayed by Ross? One hopes not. This year’s five-member group, which rotates annually, brought an unquestionably high level of musicianship to the task. Ara Guzelimian, provost and dean of The Juilliard School was the most senior member. He was joined by Justin Davidson, classical music and architecture critic of New York Magazine; Jason Moran, pianist and composer, New York; Caroline Shaw, a previous Pulitzer winner; and Julia Wolfe, composer and co-founder of Bang on a Can. Their closed-door deliberations have not yet leaked but will be fascinating when they do.

Also chosen as finalists were The Gospel According to the Other Mary, by John Adams, and Invisible Cities by Christopher Cerrone,

The criteria for prize have been frequently revised in response to the annual outcry over jury decisions. The present language reads: For a “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States” during the previous calendar year.” One critic has likened such vague guidelines to the literature prize that might be opened up to airport novels.

A look at the past ten years of winners says something about the shifting sands of the music world. Some of these composers have made a lasting impression, others not:

2005: Steven Stucky, Second Concerto for Orchestra

2006: Yehudi Wyner, Chiavi in Mano, (piano concerto)

2007: Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar

2008: David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion

2009: Steve Reich, Double Sextet

2010: Jennifer Higdon, Violin Concerto

2011: Zhou Long, Madame White Snake, opera

2012: Kevin Puts, Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts

2013: Caroline Shaw, "Partita for 8 Voices"

2014: John Luther Adams, Become Ocean

This review is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

Rate this review

Click the stars to rate

Recent Music Reviews