Much noise has already been made in the music blogosphere about this year's MacArthur Fellows, particularly the nod to critic Alex Ross. I think his is an award well-deserved. Ross has been far-reaching and insightful in his criticism and commentary, which is consistently engaging to readers at all levels of expertise. His book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, only a year old, has practically become required reading for anyone discussing classical music in modern society, but his articles for the New Yorker and essays online have been no less valuable. Consider his recent article "Symphony of Millions," an impressively researched survey of the classical music scene in today's China, or the 2004 essay "Listen to This," his exegesis on the role of classical music both in the world and in his heart. And at 40 years of age, Ross has much more writing ahead of him.
But reading the announcements of the fellowships awarded this year to Ross, violinist Leila Josefowicz, instrument maker and composer Walter Kitundu, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and twenty-one other artists, scientists, and humanitarians led me to take a closer look at the MacArthur Fellowships in years past. Among the major awards, the "genius grants" are particularly interesting in musical circles for several reasons:
1) They are one of the few awards which are open to musicians, but not given specifically for music. The MacArthur Fellowships are potentially open to artists, scientists, and humanitarians in any field, and there are no categories for the awards. Composers, performers, and music scholars all stand on equal footing when it comes to the MacArthurs.
2) They are perhaps the most lucrative awards available to musicians, currently worth $500,000 over 5 years. The Pulitzer Prize, which probably gets the most press as it is primarily a journalism award, is only worth $10,000; only the Grawemeyer Award comes close at $200,000.
3) The fellowships are awarded not as recognition for a particular composition or body of work, but as investments in future creative potential. Hence the term "genius grant" -- they are more like grants than awards. Unlike the Pulitzers, they are seen not as a stamp of official approval, but as an indication of promise. At least, that's the idea behind the awards today; it may not have always been so in the past.
I was familiar with some of the high-profile musicians who were honored in recent years, but I didn't know the earliest history of the award. So I went to look at the list of all MacArthur Fellows, going back to the award's inception in 1981. I bring you the musical highlights from that list, with my own commentary:
1981: No musicians. Seven of the 40 or so fellows were involved in the arts; of these, six were writers and one worked in art education and curation.
That's a nice combo there. Both comparative outsiders in the classical music world, each with a very unique voice. However -- and this is a big however, given the (at least current) purpose of the award -- Shapey and Nancarrow were, at 61 and 70, respectively, the oldest honorees that year. Most of the winners were under 50 that year; only author William Gaddis at age 60 came close to either composer. Now, both Nancarrow and Shapey lived and composed for another 15 to 20 years following their fellowship, and I do know that the fellowship enabled Nancarrow to produce some works for live ensemble, but looking at Kyle Gann's annotated list of Nancarrow's compositions, that only amounts to 7 new works for ensemble, plus a few more player piano pieces. But compared to some of the other well-established musicians who won fellowships in later years, both Nancarrow and Shapey were probably in a much better position to reap creative benefit from these awards. All in all, I am somewhat impressed by these initial musical choices. Clearly, someone on the selection committee had a thorough knowledge of contemporary classical music, without being academically entrenched -- a refreshing combination.
1983: Peter Sellars, theatre and opera director.
Sellars has been involved with many new musical productions, particularly the stage works of John Adams, but also works by Philip Glass, Kaija Saariaho, and others. However, all of the work I mentioned above came after the fellowship, so in retrospect it looks like a very good choice indeed.
1984-85: No music-related awards.
So in the first five years of the award, only three awards were given in the field of music, and three of the five years passed with no musical awards. That's not an encouraging start. Fortunately, musicians get more consistent recognition in years to come.
A very different group from the '82-'83 crowd. All heavily involved in some form of 12-tone music. All very much uptown and academically approved. And, in two out of three cases, old. Babbitt and Perle were both over 70 at the time of the award; Wuorinen was 48. Now, all three of them are very much alive and kicking to this day. Babbitt and Wuorinen continue to write new work, and it looks like Perle kept composing consistently until around 2000 or so. But I don't think any of them were hurting for opportunities; even Wuorinen, who had long been enjoying hotshot status as the youngest compoer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 1970.
1987: Musicologist Peter Jeffery.
I had not heard of Jeffery before encoutering his name in this context, but, like many composers, I maintain an air of superiority over musicologists. Jeffery appears to specialize in liturgical music and early Christianity, so I am probably unqualified to comment meaningfully on the merits of his work.
Now we're starting to see jazz and other African-American musical styles represented. From the late '80s to the early '90s, I saw so many jazz musicians -- especially avant-garde jazz musicians -- and "Third Stream" composers, and musicians based in the Boston area (particularly at the New England Conservatory) that I at first thought that Gunther Schuller must have been on the selection committee during those years. However, I'm almost certainly wrong on that, as you'll see shortly.
I think the jazz musicians represented during this time were all excellent musicians who did great things for jazz and for music in general, but as Darcy James Argue points out when discussing the MacArthurs, they were all big names, critically and academically respected, generally well past the peak of their careers. However, I think the awards may have been more of a boon for them than they would have for Babbitt and Perle -- many great jazz musicians, lacking the long-term safety of an academic career, fell on hard times later in life. Also, the fact that some of these musicians, like George Russell, did enjoy academic positions was itself rather revolutionary. As late as 2000, when I was an undergraduate at Duke University, I observed a good deal of resistance to the idea that jazz and other music of non-European lineage could be as serious and worthy of study as the classical canon, and the situation could only have been worse ten years earlier.
1990: Composer John Eaton.
Another musician I don't know much about. Involved in the development of early synthesizers -- cool. Innovator of "pocket operas" -- cool; I think small, flexible ensembles are an important part of the future of classical music. Microtonal composer -- meh; it looks like he mostly does quarter-tone music, which is the least adventurous flavor of microtonal music. It also looks like he is better known for his work preceding the fellowship. He was 55 at the time of the award, which is younger than a lot of the other musicians honored so far but still older than most non-musical Fellows, I'd guess.
I guess Schuller wasn't on the committee after all. But more Third Stream and avant-jazz. Also, the first non-Western musician to be represented, in Ali Akbar Khan. It's always good to broaden the scope of the award. But all three artists were in their late sixties.
1992: Jazz saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy.
At this point, I started wondered about a New England Conservatory conspiracy -- Ran Blake, George Russell, Gunther Schuller, and Steve Lacy have all been on the faculty there. But Lacy wasn't at NEC until 2002. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if someone on the committee during these years had ties to NEC. And the usual disclaimer about academically approved jazz musicians late in their careers applies again.
Stanley Crouch? Really? Well. On the one hand, he is the first honoree working in jazz circles under the age of 50. On the other hand, he spent years relentlessly touting Wynton Marsalis as the jazz Messiah, tearing down anyone who didn't agree with his and Wynton's limited ideas of what jazz ought to be, and keeping the "jazz wars" alive. I love Wynton's music, but I wish it didn't have to come with so much musical politicking.
Two more avant-jazz giants, though Braxton resists easy classification. Also, with Braxton being 49 at the time of the award, the jazz honorees are starting to trend a bit younger. In 2007, Coleman joined Wuorinen, Harbison, and Schuller as winners of both the MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize; I am sure there are a few writers in that category as well. Coleman's Pulitzer, for his album Sound Grammar, was somewhat controversial in that his album was not submitted for consideration, but the jury elected to nominate it as a finalist anyway. While this is unfortunately arbitrary -- and the other jazz work to win the Pultizer, Wynton Marsalis' Blood on the Fields, was also eligible due to some rule-bending -- it is also in some ways just, as for decades, jazz music was effectively shut out from consideration. Newer guidelines released in the past few years, however, are considerably friendlier to non-notated music, and it is my hope that the Pulitzer, as well as the MacArthur, will come to encompass work in genres of all sorts. But now I'm getting off-topic.
Although I am not familiar with Sam-Ang Sam's work, his aim -- to preserve and revive Khmer musical traditions -- is one that I definitely approve of. The documentation and preservation of fading cultures is an important pursuit, and many composers, including Percy Grainger and Béla Bartók, to name two of my favorites, drew great inspiration from their experiences collecting folk music that was in danger of dying out. I am also reminded, from my recent interest in linguistics, in the efforts to record endangered languages before they die out.
1995: Composer and singer Meredith Monk.
Monk is the first honoree since Nancarrow who would be what Kyle Gann calls a "postclassical" composer, which is an encouraging development. Also only the third female musician (after Bernice Johnson Reagon and Marion Williams) to win the award; interestingly, all three have been singers.
1996: No fellows involved with music.
How sad. The first dry year for music since 1985.
1997: Sound artist Trimpin.
Hot dog! Trimpin does some great stuff, creating vast computer-controlled acoustic sound sculptures of astounding ingenuity. He moved from Germany to Seattle to get easier access to spare parts, and he has made extraordinary use of those parts. He also has an important connection to one of the first musical Fellows, Conlon Nancarrow: he visited Nancarrow in 1987 and converted his player-piano rolls into MIDI files, so that Conlon's creations, difficult to convey accurately in conventional notation, could be preserved indefinitely. Like Monk, an excellent representative of postclassical music.
1998: No fellows involved with music.
1999: Jazz saxophonist Ken Vandermark.
Darcy James Argue, in the article I mentioned early, sites Vandermark as one of those critially approved jazz musicians who did more to advance the status of the award than the other way around. I think, in Vandermark's case, he may be looking at things from the present rather than the time of the award. Vandermark was 35 when he won the fellowship; how many jazz musicians can you name who were doing so well at 35 that they could take whatever creative risks they wanted? In recent years, Wynton Marsalis is the only name that comes to mind. However, Argue is doubtless better versed in jazz currents than I, so he may be right. I'm still going to give Vandermark the benefit of the doubt.
2000: No fellows involved with music.
Geez. One musician every other year is starting to get depressing.
I dunno. Hough is a pianist specializing in the music of dead Europeans, so I'm not as enthused as I would be of an interpreter of contemporary music. Sheng is one of many Chinese composers who have found success in the US, but I haven't been overly thrilled by the few pieces of his I've heard.
I've got to be excited about a trombonist being honored just on general principle, and if I ever decided to go back and get a PhD, the opportunity to study with Lewis would put Columbia on my short list if I could pull myself away from Boston. And while "crossover" is often considered a dirty word in musical circles, I think Meyer is one of those musicians who wears the label well.
2003: Composer Osvaldo Golijov.
I think Golijov is a bit overhyped, but he does write a lot of good music. I am not always impressed by his music, though -- the first piece of his that I heard live was Levante for solo piano, which was more or less a series of salsa montuno riffs strung together. It sounds more like a transcription exercise than a composition in its own right. But that shouldn't take away from the quality of such works as The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and Ainadamar.
2004: Ragtime composer and pianist Reginald Robinson.
Hmm. Listening to some samples at Robinson's website, I find his pieces to be exquisitely crafted examples of the ragtime genre, but I don't come away with a clear idea of what his voice is. What makes his work so significant? Is it that he is an exceptionally skilled practioner and creator in a genre which most people may not realize is still active? I suppose that's a valid reason.
A nice trio. Alsop and Dworkin have both been effective musical advocates: Alsop in bringing new music to concert audiences, and Dworkin in providing educational opportunities to aspiring classical musicians in underserved minority communities. Some people criticize the likes of Dworkin for bringing one of the mainstays of European cultural imperialism into minority communities, but I think efforts like his are an important part of breaking down the eurocentric hegemony in classical music. And Curtin's work at molding modern advances in acoustics and materials science with the long-standing art of instrument making seem very interesting.
John Zorn is definitely the higher-profile honoree this year, to the point where Stephen Colbert hilariously mocked Zorn's award on the Colbert Report. He is also a safer choice, having had a very successful career as both a musician and musical entrepreneur. As a downtown sympathizer, I am leery of the way he co-opted the focu of the downtown scene in the early '80s; I find Meredith Monk and Trimpin to both be more suitable exponents of downtown sensibilities, both musically and extramusically. Regina Carter is definitely the more adventurous choice: a relatively young (41) musician, still establishing a career as a soloist on an unusual instrument for her genre.
Dawn Upshaw is one of those very talented and accomplished musicians who by now (after looking at 25 years of MacArthur Fellows) looks like a safe but deserving choice. She is one of the most sought-after artists performing new classical music today, but has had the opportunity to branch out into Broadway and folk and other genres. It's hard to say what effect the fellowship would have on her career. Maybe she'll use the money to do some commissions? Self-serving musings from a jealous composer, I know.
A very interesting group. Josefowicz has championed the music of living composers like John Adams and Oliver Knussen. Kitundu's creations, like Trimpin's, are both sculptural and musical, but intended for human performers rather than electronic control. Darcy James Argue has more to say about Zenón's talents and accomplishments here. Compared to these three, Alex Ross now seems like an incredibly conservative choice. Compared to Kitumbu 935), Zenón (31), and Josefowicz (30), 40-year-old Ross is positively over the hill. And he already enjoys a great deal of creative freedom: working for the New Yorker, he has been at liberty to take a 2-week trip to China and Alaska doing research for the aforementioned article on China's classical music scene as well as a profile of composer John Luther Adams (no relation to the John (Coolidge) Adams I mentioned in connection with Josefowicz above), to say nothing of the many trips he took researching The Rest Is Noise.What more could a writer want? Maybe the fellowship will allow Ross to produce more. Can we expect a second book in the works? That would be nice.
So I started out by singling out Alex Ross for praise, and found that, of the four musical honorees this year, Ross may in fact be the least exciting prospect. And yet, he is an exciting prospect, for the reasons I cited at the beginning. He has produced great work, and he has much of his career to come. If he's the "safe" choice out of four this year...isn't that even more exciting?
P.S.: Looking over the list of MacArthur Fellows on Wikipedia, it surprises me how many of them are still fairly obscure. Of the 24 winners in 2007, 11 of them do not have their own Wikipedia page -- not even a stub saying "Deborah Bial is an education strategist. In 2008, she won a "genius grant" from the MacArthur foundation. Surely being a MacArthur fellow is in itself enough to meet the notability guidelines. However, I take this as a promising sign that the MacArthur Foundation is willing to take risks on people who have not achieved widespread recognition.
P.P.S.: Writing this post prompted some tangential research into the song quoted in the title. I learned that Jimmy Webb originallly intended for "MacArthur Park" to be performed by The Association. That makes so much sense. I can totally hear their harmonies in place of Richard Harris' vocal harmonies. It'd be a good sound for the song, though they might not be able to make up for the lyrics.
The first version of "MacArthur Park" that I ever heard was Maynard Ferguson's big band arrangement, so I was blissfully unaware of the lyrics for many a time. However, the song still came to haunt me, as the musical progression corresponding to the lines "Some left the cake out in the rain/And I don't know if I can take it" became inextricably linked in my brain with the opening of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata. Isn't that more than you ever needed to know?