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Pulitzer Board to Consider Improvised Music

The governing board of the Pulitzer Prizes in journalism and the arts announced a broadening of the award in the music category so that it will now include works containing elements of jazz improvisation and musical theater and film scores, according to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times. The announcement is being received with mixed responses, evoking praise from many musicians, but provoking criticism from more traditional composers.

The current definition of what constitutes a “distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance in the United States during the year,” is being revised to reflect “a broad view of serious music,” according to an announcement by the board. The new language of the definition will drop the words “of significant dimension,” and will include the alternative of “recording” in addition to “performance.” The guidelines now “strongly urge” the submission of a score instead of requiring one, in hopes of making improvisational work admissible. The Pulitzer Prize jury, which has formerly been made up of composers and one critic, will now include an additional conductor, performer or presenter.

The board hopes the change will allow for more music to be considered within the category.

“The board has been concerned for many years that the full range of excellence in American music was not somehow getting through the process in such a way that it could be properly and appropriately considered,” board member Jay Harris told the Boston Globe. “The changes in the wording are intended to make sure that the full range of excellence can be considered. The prize should not be reserved essentially for music that comes out of the European classical tradition. The intent is to widen the prize without weakening it.”

Some musicians, however, are seriously concerned that this shift will devalue the importance of the award. Classical composer and Pulitzer Prize winner John Harbison dubbed the change “a horrible development” in the Boston Globe.

“If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels,” Harbison told the Globe. “There is an award on television every night for every category of popular culture you can think of, except for those demanding artistic enterprise, and the Pulitzer was one of the few places where such cultural enterprise could be recognized.”

Lewis Spratlan, another classical composer and Pulitzer Prize winner, agrees: “The Pulitzer is one of the very few prizes that award artistic distinction in front-edge, risk-taking music. To dilute this objective by inviting the likes of musicals and movie scores, no matter how excellent, is to undermine the distinctiveness and capability for artistic advancement.”

Other Pulitzer winners are lauding the new direction the award is taking. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Olly Wilson told the Globe that the changes are “a move in the right direction” since they recognize “a wider spectrum of music, including music that is not written down.”

Pop stars Beyonce and Justin Timberlake need not apply, however-the board has firmly stated that they are not trying to dumb down the award. Said Gissler, the prize administrator at Columbia University, said: “We’re not looking for this to become another Grammy Award. I think the critical term here is ‘distinguished American musical compositions.'”

In the past, the Pulitzer for music has typically gone to symphonic and chamber works from the “contemporary classical tradition,” in the words of the board, or to operas, choral works and occasionally a score like Wynton Marsalis’ ambitious 1997 work, Blood on the Fields, which contained sections of improvised music. Virgil Thomson was awarded the lone Pulitzer for a film score in 1948 for Louisiana Story, according to BBC News. About 75 percent of the music entries each year are for orchestral pieces, works with instrumental soloists and chamber music, according to Gissler.

Originally Published