Pulitzer Compass Key To Mapping American Music

Reflecting cultural trends, Pulitzer Prize winners clockwise from upper left: Du Yun (2017), John Luther Adams (2014), Henry Threadgill (2016), Kevin Puts (2012), Kendrick Lamar (2018), Caroline Shaw (2013), Zhou Long (2011), Julia Wolfe (2015).

In July 2018, at the invitation of Music From Japan, ten writers from the Music Critics Association of North America traveled to Tokyo and Fukushima, along with composers Anthony Cheung and Zosha Di Castri. A concert July 7 by the Tokyo Sinfonietta, in Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, July 7, juxtaposed works by Japanese composers Tokuhide Niimi and Naoko Hishinuma with those of American composers Julia Wolfe and Cheung, as well as Di Castri, a Canadian who teaches at Columbia University. Their compositions displayed connections between today’s music on two sides of the globe. As a part of the evening’s presentation, I was asked to give an overview of the state of the art in North America. What follows is a version of that speech, edited for print.

TOKYO – Konbanwa gozaimasu! Good evening. On behalf of my colleagues of the Music Critics Association of North America, and two renowned composers that our MCANA president and past presidents selected to join us on this journey, I give our most grateful thanks for this opportunity to visit Japan. We have been welcomed so warmly.

As we say in the U.S., I wear several hats. I am a music critic. I also teach journalism at Syracuse University. In my classes I am infamous for giving very difficult assignments. So I think it was some kind of karma or fate when I was given this almost impossible assignment to explain what is happening in American contemporary music – in ten minutes! Today’s music is a chaotic, diverse, experimental, and many-faceted world.

In his final novel, the author Lewis Carroll wrote about making the perfect map of a country, with a scale of one mile to one mile. Of course, he explained, when this map is spread out, it covers the whole country.

Music From Japan, founded in 1975, endeavors to keep
abreast of Japanese and American music innovation.

But to make a useful map we must exclude so much. My first problem was to discover what road I might follow. What compass would point me to the most important features of this complex landscape of new music?

I thought of the Pulitzer Prizes. Another hat I have worn is as a judge of the Pulitzers, four times in the category of criticism and once as the chair of the jury. From my experience with these prestigious awards, I can say that the process is rigorous and fair, albeit sometimes as flawed as human beings are. In general though, the choices do reflect the deep consideration of expert judges. Perhaps I might use the Pulitzer Prizes to provide direction.

Founded just over a hundred years ago by the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prizes were expanded to include music in 1943. To read a few names from the list of recipients – Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, William Bolcom, Ornette Coleman, John Adams, and Wynton Marsalis – is to trace the development of contemporary music in classical and jazz.

With this in mind, I decided to listen to and think about music that has recently received the Pulitzer, and how it might illustrate musical and cultural trends. I am choosing to discuss the past eight winners. Why? Because I know that eight is a lucky number here in Japan, and like my students who get a difficult assignment, I need all the luck I can get.

Before I plunge in, though, I must point out that I am here representing colleagues from the U.S. as well as Canada, and to my Canadian colleagues, I offer an apology for using the Pulitzers as my compass. Although there have been Pulitzer winners such as Yehudi Wyner and Henry Brant who were born in Canada, one must hold U.S. citizenship to be eligible for a Pulitzer.

However, in looking through the last eight Pulitzer prize winners, I believe they do well to illustrate some of the most important musical and cultural trends that pertain to Canadian composers as well. So, here we go.

Zhou Long with ‘Madame White Snake.’ (welltempered.wordpress.com)

2011: In 2011, the Pulitzer Prize went to Zhou Long for his opera Madame White Snake. Zhou grew up in China during the cultural revolution and began his career in Beijing. After furthering his training in the U.S., he founded Music From China. This organization has opened Western ears to Chinese music, in the same way that the extraordinary Music From Japan has done in New York City. Zhou’s opera is a retelling of a Chinese folk tale with the music combining Chinese timbres and folk melodies with Western chromaticism and harmonies.

We can hear echoes in the music of other composers such as Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi. This opera is an excellent example of the trend of globalism, a topic we are exploring this week. While Zhou was granted citizenship in the U.S. and was therefore eligible for a Pulitzer, he has said about himself that he cannot be defined as a Chinese composer or an American composer. To think of culture and musical language and identity in this global way is certainly a new thing in human history that has only been true during our lifetimes. [Below is an aria for the title character.]

2012: The next year, another opera received the prize: Silent Night by Kevin Puts. This composer writes in a much more traditional 20th-century style, and his sweeping tonal orchestral music has been compared at times to that of Mahler and Britten. The opera is based on a 2005 French film about the night in World War I when the soldiers fighting in the trenches of Europe put down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together.

For me, this work points to the continuation of a strain of neo-romanticism in Western music, as well as an important trend of basing operas on films. Among the many examples of this in recent years have been Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel and Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, and it leads me to think about how film has become the most powerful and ubiquitous text of our time. [Below is the chorus “Sleep” from the opera.]

2013: Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices was the winner in 2013 and it is a fine example of the use of extended vocal techniques. Shaw incorporates whispers, sighs, humming, speech, mouth clicks, and other unusual noises. Extended vocal technique became part of the musical language with Arnold Schoenberg’s use of Sprechstimme. In her work, Shaw is following in the footsteps of composers like Luciano Berio, George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Joan La Barbara, and many others.

When Shaw’s work took the prize, I thought about how popular a cappella music is for my university students. Almost every young person I know sings in an a cappella chorus as an active part of their social life. I wonder if the same is true here in Japan? So a cappella music is very much of the moment. [The avant-garde ensemble Roomful of Teeth performs the partita below.]

2014: The next year’s winner was Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, which the composer introduced with these words:

Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.

The musical language, based in minimalism, uses a unique chiasmic structure – that is to say, it could be expressed as ABBA, wherein the second half of the work is a reversal of the first half. This gives the wonderful effect of a surging wave and also becomes a metaphor perhaps for the cyclical nature of human existence on our planet. Philosophically, the work speaks to our anxiety about climate change. [The entire 40-minute work can be heard below.]

2015: Composer Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields was the winner in 2015, and also expresses contemporary anxiety and despair. The music combines folk elements with techniques of minimalism. The libretto is about the lives of Pennsylvania coal miners and the growing economic disparity that has increased political conflict in the U.S. This composition also points to the human costs of our dependence on fossil fuels. For me, this work is an example of the creative re-purposing of traditional forms, new wine in old bottles. Here the oratorio, with its echoes of Handel, gives the gritty and difficult realities of the coal mining community a religious and deeply spiritual aspect. [Below is the second movement, “Breaker Boys,” which refers to the child laborers forced to work in the coal mines.]

2016: The next year came jazz saxophonist, flutist, and composer Henry Threadgill, for In for a Penny, In for a Pound. It was only in 1996 that the first African-American composer, George T. Walker, had won for a classical composition, and the following year, the Pulitzer went to the first jazz-based composition, Blood on the Field by Wynton Marsalis. As Marsalis has pointed out, up until then, “jazz, blues, gospel, country, spirituals, and every other genre the United States gave to the world, all had been excluded.” The Pulitzers had had a troubled history with black composers and jazz (two judges resigned when a special citation was denied to Duke Ellington), but times were changing. In 2007, Ornette Coleman took the prize for his jazz album and then came Threadgill.

Henry Threadgill, 2016 ( John Rogers)

These high-profile awards reinforced in particular the importance of jazz in American music, and the contributions of African-American composers. On his Chicago-jazz-based two-disc studio album, Threadgill wrote a concerto for each of his six band members, which references the crucial element of collaboration in jazz. The album combines notated music with the improvisation that is the essence of jazz. Threadgill is also an example of performer as composer, and a great ambassador for his art form. [Listen to the opening of the work below.]

2017: Many years ago, the renowned critic Kyle Gann, one of our best thinkers on contemporary music, was writing about the concept of “totalism,” describing music derived from a wide variety of sources. I thought of his term totalism last year when Shanghai-born composer Du Yun won the prize for her opera Angel’s Bone. This is a wild mixture of electronica, punk rock, nightclub tunes, Gregorian chant, fractured operetta, music that shifts from tonal to atonal, and noise. This opera tells a violent and disturbing story of angels landing on earth and being violated, becoming an analogy for child trafficking. By disrupting the listener’s expectations of musical genre, the score posits a chaotic world in which anything can happen, where the most vulnerable and innocent among us are debased and unprotected. Ultimately, there is no moral and no redemption, so this is an opera reflective of the increasing nihilism of today. [The video below features excerpts from Angel’s Bone.]

2018: And that brings us to this year, when the Pulitzer Prize was a shock to some when rapper Kendrick Lamar won for his album DAMN. He became the first winner outside the realms of classical and jazz, reminding us that there is art in many popular and vernacular musical genres. DAMN is a throwback to classical rap with its close rhyming in lyrics of protest about the systemic racial violence against African-Americans. The album is a dense collaboration, with other rap artists and even U-2’s Bono enriching the texture with their musical ideas. In listening to Lamar’s work, I also became aware that, like with operatic works, we must consider the whole, the Gesamtkunstwerk. These days, an album does not exist merely as sound, but also as music videos. The video tracks for DAMN incorporate broad cultural references, such as a recreation of Da Vinci’s Last Supper and photographs by Gordon Parks. More than anything, this album points to the constantly shifting and expanding landscape of American music today. [Below is the track “Humble,” with the Last Supper references.]

Globalism, totalism, minimalism, neo-romanticism, punk rock, jazz, rap, improvisation, extended vocal techniques, and so on – I come to the end of this road acknowledging that the landscape I have mapped leaves out so many essential composers, as well as techniques like spatial music, serialism, and spectralism.

It feels as if the horizon of our music is constantly receding all around us, and that we stand in an expanding territory we can never fully measure. It’s a dizzying prospect. This can be alarming. Or exciting, depending on your point of view.

Arigatou gozaimasu. Thank you very much.

Johanna Keller teaches journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she founded the Goldring Arts Journalism Program. She is the music critic for The Hopkins Review, and received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her essays in The New York Times.

[Editor’s note: Additional coverage of the extensive Music from Japan program of cultural exchange, on both continents,  can be found below.]