Written by Lawrence Schenbeck


For weeks now I’ve been planning a column on the winners of various creative-achievement prizes in music. No problem with material — it’s all there. The only problem is my attitude toward it. What makes a winner? By definition, that’s socially determined. On the other hand, actual human responses to artwork are often profoundly individual, not necessarily “social.” That may be especially true for audiophiles, who tend not to hold the kind of listening parties where you gather a dozen friends and neighbors to hear some remastered Supertramp.

Yet once in a while, even the most rugged individuals check out those Winners lists. After all, smart people of all sorts — experts and fans — come up with them. Other smart people then take note, because there are few better (or faster) ways to expand your Personal Favorites list.

One: The Pulitzer Prize. Most of us associate the Pulitzers with yearly awards in various journalism categories or in “letters,” e.g., fiction, biography, history, etc. The awards were established by a bequest from newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), so that makes sense. There’s also a music award, given for a “distinguished musical composition [of significant dimension] by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” (The bracketed words have slipped in and out of the description over the years.)

The Pulitzer for Music was established in 1943, but it didn’t get a lot of attention. Only in the mid-1960s, when board members began to see problems in the way Music Pulitzers were chosen, did they take action. Said action was itself fragmentary, glacial, and open to criticism (read a summary of its fitful progress here). Pulitzer juries struggled (mostly in vain) to define music “of significant dimension,” then identify the year’s most “distinguished” composition. The music award was, as John Corigliano (who finally won it in 2001) complained, a thing passed around “by composers for composers” and “mired in a pool of rotating jurors,” mainly Ivy League faculty and their friends. Donald Martino (who won in 1974) was more blunt:

If you write music long enough, sooner or later, someone is going to take pity on you and give you the damn thing. It is not always the award for the best piece of the year; it has gone to whoever hasn’t gotten it before.

Times have changed. A glance at the last few winners will quickly show just how much. Counting back from 2020, they are:

  • The Central Park Five, an opera by Anthony Davis (b. 1951);
  • p r i s m, an opera by Ellen Reid (b. 1983)
  • DAMN., a “virtuoso song collection” by Kendrick Lamar;
  • Angel’s Bone, an opera by Du Yun (b. 1977); and
  • In for a Penny, In for a Pound, a genre-hopping mix of notated and improvised music by Henry Threadgill (b. 1944).

If we time-travel a little further back, we’ll encounter slightly more familiar names like Julia Wolfe, John Luther Adams, Caroline Shaw, Kevin Puts, Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich. You’ve probably heard some of their music.

It’s not as easy to hear music from more recent awardees. Yes, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is omnipresent:


Lamar was the first Pulitzer recipient not associated with either the Euro-American “classical” tradition or with jazz. (Duke Ellington broke Pulitzer boundaries on the latter when the music panel voted to award him a special citation in 1965; the Pulitzer board refused to honor their request, and the award was only given after Ellington’s death.)

You can get a pretty good idea of Ellen Reid’s style and output via the music on her website. By the way, she’s not the Crash Test Dummies’ Ellen Reid but rather a groundbreaking American sound-design artist, fluent in film work, “installations,” and more. Like other recent Pulitzer winners, her p r i s m confronts a controversial contemporary issue, in this case sexual assault. She’s not a single-topic artist, but issues do matter to her: when Reid was a student at Columbia, her main music professor was George Lewis, who collaborated frequently with Anthony Davis on culturally sensitive avant-garde jazz projects; she talks about that and much more here:


I wish it were easier to access Davis’s best work via the internet. I used to play his first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986) in my music history classes. He’s written several fine theater works since then, including Amistad, Tania, and Wakonda’s Dream, all of which work with stories from American history (Dream centers on a present-day Ponca family in Nebraska). You can find Amistad and a Boston Modern Orchestra Project album of Davis’s orchestral music on Qobuz. Here’s a revealing interview. And here is an excerpt from that BMOP album:



It was fun seeing Henry Threadgill’s name pop up; I started collecting his jazz albums thirty years ago. Surprise, surprise: there’s a ton of Threadgill available on Qobuz, including In for a Penny. It’s definitely worth a listen (the stream is apparently set up to play excerpts only). I wanted to hear more, so I downloaded the album. It’s definitely “of significant dimension,” 79 minutes long and portioned into six movements. Two are introductory — what Threadgill calls “exordia” — and four are “epics,” concertos really, each focusing on one player in his group ZOOID and offering a string of picaresque adventures supported by the entire quintet, including the maestro on alto sax, flute, and bass flute. Here’s a bit of the first exordium:

Reminds me a bit of early-20th-century New Orleans polyphony, with its lively, joyously interlaced counterpoint in the upper voices over the tuba and drums anchoring, punctuating, driving it all forward. ZOOID plays with remarkably tight ensemble work, considering that much of what you hear is improvised. Listen to this excerpt from “Ceroepic,” the percussion concerto:

For a track list and personnel, click here; for the Pulitzer statement, here.

Two: MacArthur “Genius” Grants. One very nice thing about the MacArthurs is that they don’t separate music creators from music performers. (In the old European art-music rulebook, only a few geniuses are allowed to create music; everyone else merely performs it.) The MacArthur folks look for promising people in mid-career and offer them a stipend. Recipients can hit the pause button (if they need to) and go do something really creative. Or they can buy groceries with their money and just keep doing what earned them the grant. Check out the foundation website, which lists the 2020 crop of MacArthur Fellows, including phenomenal jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, still young, still growing, an ideal collaborator, muse, or main attraction. Her 2018 duet album with pianist Sullivan Fortner needs to be in your collection.


Other musicians who’ve won MacArthurs in recent years are guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson, violinist/social activist Vijay Gupta, singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, and Master of Nearly Everything Tyshawn Sorey.

Three: The Grawemeyer Awards. We got the Nobel Prizes because Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, felt kind of guilty about it. He wanted to do something that might help humanity. I’m not sure whether Louisville industrialist H. Charles Grawemeyer (1912–93) felt guilty about anything; he appears to have been a humble man who led a beneficent life. At the heart of the Awards established in his name lay “his simple conviction that the judgment of lay persons — not academic experts — ought to be decisive in the selection of award winners.” (words from U. of L. President Donald Swain).

You can read more about the history of the Grawemeyers here. Their parade of winners since 1985 includes big names (Lutosławski, Ligeti, Penderecki, Boulez) and relative unknowns (Zivkovic, Bons, Hoeller), conservatives (Corigliano, Tan Dun) and radicals (Andriessen, Saariaho, Norman). Maybe the true wild card in the mix is the lay committee that must weigh in before a decision is made. Is it possible they exercise their instincts in a better way than any number of tenured professors might have done?

Winner of the 2021 Grawemeyer Award has already been announced: Chinese-American composer Lei Liang (b. 1972), whose orchestral piece, A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams, was cited for its evocation of “the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it offers for redemption.” Read more about Liang’s music here. Mountains was premiered in 2018 by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Boston’s Jordan Hall. A multichannel high-resolution SACD is available.

Fun facts: Liang teaches at UC San Diego, Anthony Davis’s longtime academic roost. He is also research-artist-in-residence at the Qualcomm Institute, UCSD’s chunk of Calit2, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. That sort of link-up with the tech world has increasingly become the norm for 21st-century composers. Liang’s saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang was a named finalist for the Pulitzer in 2015; it’s also on the BMOP disc. Within it, the composer uses extended wind techniques to evoke a human voice torn between mournful sobbing and defiant silence.

A Thousand Mountains, Liang’s largest orchestral work to date, has been compared to Richard Strauss’s Alpensinfonie for its use of brief, linked movements that (in this case) describe moments in the eco-life of a great wilderness.

The YouTube link below will access Liang’s entire BMOP album for you. It opens with the one-movement saxophone concerto, follows that with the five-movement Five Seasons, and ends with Mountains, tracks 7–21. All are worth hearing; my personal favorite is Xiaoxiang.


I meant to get around to the recently announced Gramophone Awards, but we’ve run out of space, so this link will have to do. Maybe we’ll take it up next time.

Header image: Anthony Davis, courtesy of Eduardo Contreras, San Diego Union-Tribune.

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