Culture, Meet Revolver

What makes someone a composer? What makes something a musical composition?

A composer makes music, obviously, the common method being notating symbolic language on staff paper. But we have long ago accepted written language (text pieces) and images (graphic scores) as compositions.

What is a composition? It’s a set of instructions by which a musician-or more than one-produces a piece of music in real time. Crucially, those instructions can be distributed, and their realization can be repeated.

Does that make a recording a composition? The answer to that has been “Yes” since Pierre Schaeffer made Etude aux chemins de fer out of magnetic tape. Music made for electronic media usually doesn’t have a score, but in that media the listener takes the place of the musician, and putting the record on the stereo is the performance.

Even more true to the idea is a pop record, because that music can be heard and recreated by other musicians. The oral tradition of composing and spreading music is just as valid as the written one—though academic and composer culture is heavily biased toward paper—and recordings are the way to preserve an oral document.

And so Kendrick Lamarr’s DAMN is indisputably a music composition, one that is excellent on its own terms, and one that is deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. There are other compositions from 2017 that are also deserving, but this is the choice that reflects best on American culture as it actually exist, in people, rather than what is documented and secreted away in research libraries.

In what was a beautiful coincidence, my promo CDs for Henry Threadgill’s two upcoming releases came the same day that the Pulitzer was given to Lamarr.

This award, and Threadgill’s from 2016, are the fruits of the Pulitzer Committee opening up the field by simplifying their criteria from requirements that demanded a composition within the western classical tradition to one that simply asks for a music composition performed or recorded in the past year, by an American musician. That change was pointed out to me by musician David Leisner in the midst of a heated, serious Facebook thread. The conversation was generally the same as had been arching across the internet, much like the ones hilariously and painfully archived by the @NewMusicDrama Twitter account—although in this case not one sided.

I feel it’s unfortunate, even a little sad, that anyone objects to the choice for any reason than personal taste, in particular with the Pulitzer, because before the criteria opened up and the boards changed, they lionized a lot of mediocre music. It’s a repeat of the same old shit we’ve been hearing since the early 1980s-hip hop isn’t music, it’s too vulgar (that never stopped Mozart), that it’s a diminishment of classical music, which is the culture we (
meaning educated, upper middle class white people, a big demographic for Trump in 2016) need (meaning that it sets us apart as a cohort with superior intelligence and taste), and another sign of the decline of white, Eurocentric civilization.

That’s all nonsense, built on some real, atavistic, class and race bigotry. But one thing is true, it is a diminishment of classical music. And as a composer working in the classical tradition, and a working classical music critic, I say that’s a good thing. For decades the Pulitzer was by design an award for classical composers, which is ridiculous for an award that is supposed to be for American music. Duke Ellington, along with Charles Ives the greatest American composer, never got a Pulitzer—he was just a jazz composer. That arbitrary prejudice in the only changed in the late ’90s, the immediate result being Wynton Marsalis’ award for Blood On The Fields.


What the committee has to their credit done, and what the chauvinists clinging to their miserly, defensive idea of culture should learn, is that there is nothing inherently superior about being a classical composer, and nothing inherently inferior about being a jazz musician or a hip hop artist. Christ, give me Kendrick Lamarr saying “fuck” and “pussy”—which has really twisted some knickers—over Puccini’s suicide porn any day, give me the intelligence and insight of his lyrics over the condescending smugness of Michael Daugherty.

And give me the harmonic rhythm and sophisticated structure of Threadgill, his vision of a present and future built on the giants who came before him, over yet another dreary, anachronistic example of academic atonality. These two new releases are excellent, another step along a path that gets more refined the further Threadgill follows it. He’s brought back some of his harmonic experiments and tethered them tightly to his inimitable afro-futurist march rhythms.

America is a big place with a vast and fecund culture, and like a lot of things in this country, that culture would be impossible without African-Americans. That educated people who claim to care about culture are so discomfited by a prestigious institution (the currency of establishment culture) rewarding a young, black hip hop artist who uses samples, drum machines, and swears, shows how deep unearned privilege runs; elevating someone unlike them is somehow seen as a loss, when it’s a gain for all of us who care about America.

P.S. This index that Molly Sheridan put together over at NewMusicBox is worth checking out, especially the article on how runners-up Michael Sheridan and Ted Hearne were thrilled about the award, which undercuts anyone taking offense as anything other than snit.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.