As a counter to this week's horrific news (my thoughts and prayers are with family, faculty, staff and students at Virginia Tech) and last week's I-mess: Art and good news.
Poet Natasha Trethewey becomes only the 4th African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry (joining Gwendolyn Brooks for Annie Allen (1950); Rita Dove for Thomas and Beulah (1987); and Yusef Komunyakaa for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1994)), for her collection Native Guard. I read the book last year, and it's delicious(Another African-American woman, Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also won this year's prize for Commentary). Last May, she appeared on PBS' NewsHour, returning to post-Katrina Gulfport, Mississippi, to reflect and read some of her work.
As a long time jazz fan, I'm especially overjoyed to learn that John Coltrane received a *LONG OVERDUE* "posthumous special citation" (as did SF writer Isaac Asimov for his writing, a 'gateway drug' to the world of science writing and Science Fiction for many people, myself included).
Free Jazz giant Ornette Coleman won this year's music Pulitzer for "Sound Grammar," his first recording in 10 years, and the debut release on his own label of the same name -- a recording which I just bought last week (I particularly adore the version of "Sleep Talking" from the 1979 "Of Human Feelings" recording that's on here)
Guess I got that 'Pulitzer mojo workin' baby'...now to try it with the Lotto!
For a number of years, thanks to posts on blogs by Alex Ross and Greg Sandow, I've followed some of the grumbling by 'Classical' composers over the loosening up of the music category, an attempt to make up for their previous woeful ignoring of jazz and other forms of popular music -- started in part by complaints about the prize from the amazing composer (and past Pulitzer winner) John Adams (pictured at left) for ignoring "most of the country's greatest musical minds." Kudos to the highly respected and successful Adams for raising a ruckus -- but then what do you expect from someone with his own MySpace page?
The Pulitzer Board now accepts recordings, no longer requiring artists to send in scores of their music, although that it still 'encouraged.' (Sandow finds that 'encouragement' problematic, thinks it still means "We prefer Classical", and that perhaps they should just come out and say the prize is FOR Classical music and be done with it).
Not all composers were with John Adams. John Harbison for example let loose with this, "If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction [comparable, that is, to the standard the Pulitzer board now mandates for music] you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels."
Which to my ear is just this side of an up-market variation on Don Imus' recent empty-headed comments - particularly when most of us recognize that it would probably be a jazz musician that would likely wind up winning the prize (and look what happened -- "Ornette on Pulitzer!")
Justin Davidson on Ross' blog also provides an interesting note on Coleman's win -- no one nominated him!
"As jurors huddled for a weekend in March to go through the hundred-plus scores and recordings, someone noticed that despite the official desire for submissions in jazz, film music and other genres, Coleman's latest CD, "Sound Grammar," wasn't in the pile. [J]uror John Rockwell sent someone out to scare up a copy...."
Of course, it's not just in music where the Pulitzer Board has stubbed it's toe, as The Village Voices' Gary Giddens notes:
"Laughing Boy beat The Sound and the Fury and A Farewell to Arms; Years of Grace beat As I Lay Dying, The Maltese Falcon, and Flowering Judas; Now in November beat Tender Is the Night and Appointment in Samarra; and the board could find no worthy fiction at all in the years For Whom the Bell Tolls, Native Son, The Hamlet, The Adventures of Augie March, V, Idiots First, Losing Battles, and Gravity's Rainbow were eligible."
There was no 1974 Fiction award due to a disagreement between the Fiction Jury and the overall Prize Board: Gravity's Rainbow, which the jurors had chosen, but some members of the Board found obscene. This echoes how the music jurors were overruled in 1965 when they wanted to give the prize to Duke Ellington for his body of work and got overruled by the Board, pointing out that the award was supposed to go to a single work (as Giddens points out, they didn't correct their error by awarding it to Duke (and Billy Strayhorn) for the magnificent 'single work', 'The Far East Suite,' the following year).
No review of the Pulitzer would be complete without noting William H. Gass' gleeful demolition of the Fiction category and why writers should give the award a pass, Prizes, Surprises and Consolation Prizes" (called "Pulitzer, the People's Prizes" in his collection Finding a Form).
"...the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the second; and if you believed yourself to be a writer of that eminence, you are now assured of being over the hill - not a sturdy mountain flower but a little wilted lily of the valley."
Personally, I find something like Sweden's Polar Music Prize to be much more to my liking. Call it "The Odd Couple" award if you want (winners include Steve Reich and Sonny Rollins in 2007; Valery Gergiev and Led Zeppelin in 2006; Gilberto Gil and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 2005; B. B. King and György Ligeti in '04...Dizzy Gillespie (left) and Witold Lutoslawski (pictured at right) in 1993!)
To my mind, this more accurately reflects the overall notion of 'excellence in music' than awards in just one category (and the winners list also looks a lot like my own music collection). And if they got the winners to play on the same stage...talk about one heck of a concert!