On April 16, 2018, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was named the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This seemingly momentous choice sent shockwaves throughout the music world.
Up until 2018, the Pulitzer Prize for Music had been restricted to classical music. Though the prize is intended for a “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the (previous) year,” it had previously been awarded exclusively to contemporary classical music composers and the occasional jazz composer. To many, it was the height of American “art music” — a guaranteed teaching position at a high-paying university and a publishing deal with a major sheet music publisher.
Some would even argue that it has traditionally been restricted to the more well-established areas of contemporary classical music, all but avoiding Minimalism until the late 1990s. It had only been awarded to three jazz composers prior to 2018, and never any composers of other “popular” forms of music.
But many assumed that the 2018 prize spoke to a new era of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Reactions around the music world varied, from the pride of the larger public for the newfound diversity of the prize to the fears of the contemporary classical music community at the loss of an important prize.
The reactions to the 2018 prize were divided, some in the contemporary classical music world mourning the (presumed) loss of this important prize while the larger American public applauded the diversification of this notoriously insular award.
And even within the contemporary classical music world, reactions to this decision were largely divided along generational lines, with many young composers (such as the year’s other finalists) celebrating Lamar’s win even as older generations feared the loss of this important award.
Personally, while I feared the effects that the loss of this award might have on contemporary classical music as a whole, I was also excited to see a prominent award confidently embrace other genres besides classical music. It spoke to the rapid integration of rap and hip-hop into the larger American cultural lexicon and the dissolving barriers between genres.
For the first time since the rise of the professional orchestra, it seemed as though the hierarchical boundary between “art music” and “popular music” had no effect on the jury as they considered the recipient of the award. This was not the first instance that the Pulitzer Prize had gone to a significant work of hip hop — that distinction belonged to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But in this instance, Lamar’s DAMN. was considered alongside Michael Gilbertson’s string quartet “Quartet,” and Ted Hearne’s five-movement cantata “Sound from the Bench.” His work of hip hop was considered against these two works of traditionally notated contemporary classical music and found to be the most musically compelling work of the year.
Nearly everyone seemed to assume that this marked a new era of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Few seemed to think that the award could possibly return to the realm of contemporary classical music after this bold decision by the jury.
But on Monday, the 2019 prize was was awarded to Ellen Reid for “p r i s m,” a “bold new operatic work that uses sophisticated vocal writing and striking instrumental timbres to confront difficult subject matter: the effects of sexual and emotional abuse.” The other two finalists were also works of art music: James Romig’s solo piano work “Still” and Andrew Norman’s orchestral work “Sustain.”
Given the response that last year’s prize warranted, I assumed that this choice would be met with significant media attention. The award, after all, had been criticized last year for never having previously ventured outside of contemporary classical music. And yet few outside the contemporary classical music world seem to care about this year’s prize.
The coverage of this award in The New York Times is most telling in this regard. They ran an article on Apr. 11th about the 2018 award and the contemporary classical music community that was “upended” by this decision. But on Monday, when the award was announced, it warranted little more than a short feature in the classical music section of the paper.
The more that I have thought about this decision by the prize to return to contemporary classical music, the less that I have understood it. I had taken the previous year’s award to be indicative of where the award would move in the future. I assumed that the prize would continue to judge between all different types of music, not merely works of contemporary classical music.
The 2018 award, however, now seems a strange anomaly — a brief interruption, if you will — from the award’s consistent commitment to contemporary classical music. And in both the classical music world and the larger music-consuming public, this seems incredibly unsatisfactory.
In the classical music community, the decision to award Lamar the award sapped some of its career-making power. It seems to no longer connote instantaneous academic success, and many have shifted their focus in this regard towards other American classical music awards.
And among the larger public, the reversion back to contemporary classical music undercuts much of the musical diversity that many took from Lamar’s win. Statements about the unexpected diversification of the “art music” and the collapse of musical hierarchy from 2018 seem cheap and disingenuous after the jury reinforced this hierarchy in 2019.
Last night, I texted a friend of mine for her thoughts. She’s a music major but she doesn’t study composition — while she was aware of Lamar’s win in 2018 she was unaware of this year’s winner.
When I texted her that Ellen Reid had won for “p r i s m,” she responded with something that caught me totally off guard. “A WOMAN,” she wrote.
While my friend was happy to see that the prize was awarded to a woman, the potential significance of this had not yet occurred to me. This award, after all, has already been awarded to seven other women. Though it was groundbreaking when Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won the prize in 1983, the past ten years have seen unexpected gender parity: five female recipients and five male recipients.
And though I may struggle to understand the jury’s decision to once again consider purely contemporary classical music for this award, I remain encouraged by gender parity that my friend identified. Classical music, after all, has proven notoriously resistant to widespread diversification efforts.
And in my personal struggle to come to grips with Lamar’s win, I had lost touch with the bigger picture. I had become so focused on the cultural implications of Lamar’s win that I failed to see the Pulitzer for what it is: a $15,000 prize awarded annually by a few randomly selected composers and performers. And in the greater music world, it matters little. It is the inclusion of new works to this homogeneous classical music canon, I now realize, that must be celebrated, whether they be works of hip-hop or works by female composers.