Alas, no composers among the MacArthur geniuses named today but Dawn Upshaw, who probably makes a decent living at this singing and recording business, will be getting a check for $500,000.  (I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve it, mind you, just that there are probably equally deserving singers who could use a boost at this point in their career but, then, Ms. Upshaw has had a tough couple of years and could probably use a boost, too, so forget everything I’ve said up to this point.

Let’s pretend that you’re a MacArthur judge.  Who would you give the award to?

25 Responses to “MacArthur Stiffs Composers”
  1. fingers says:

    Thanks, Herb. I don’t really think any of the three I mentioned are on my “favorite composer” list. Well, maybe Ashley. It is interesting that it was seen that way, though.

  2. Herb Levy says:

    Oddly, though Evan Johnson understands that while “Who’s your favorite composer?” is nearly exactly the question that the MacArthur Foundations doesn’t seem to be trying to answer (with varying degrees of success in every field, not just music), and I’d also love for Alvin Lucier (& Robert Ashley and many of the other composers who’ve been name-checked so far) to get greater recognition, Bob Ostertag has had the kind of sociological impact on the field of new music that folks are seeing in the work of some of the more recent musically-related fellows.

    Ostertag’s article, Why Computer Music Sucks, available on his Web site , literally changed how the field of electronic music considered who was making serious work worthy of recognition, opening the doors to artists working far outside of the academy and far closer to the realms of “commercial” music, not just at Ars Electronica (the festival for which Ostertag served as a judge, which experience triggered the writing of the essay) but many other situations as well.

    Even though he’s no Dawn Upshaw or Peter Sellars, it’s possible that, of all of the composers listed above, Bob Ostertag has done the most to change the way an esoteric area of “serious” music interacts with the greater world we live in.

  3. Lisa says:

    Never heard of him before the award but Ive been listening to Corey Harris allot since then and he is fucking great. Though his career does seem pretty uneven. Maybe a little financial stability will allow his work to really flourish. Isn’t that the best possible outcome of one of these awards? Excellent choice!

    I’m with Seth and zeno wondering how Corey Harris is not a composer.

  4. zeno says:

    Evan, while I agree with the thrust of your post, and especially your opening, bear in mind that the MacArthur Foundation’s views on the relationship of “genius” to historical and social environment is evolving, in general (as it should be); and that this is perhaps most fascinating in its attention to the field of American music.

    At one point in the 1980s, the Foundation (as you know) attempted to affirm the importance of post-Schoenbergian classical Western music by giving awards, sometimes in the same cycle, to composers such as George Perle, Charles Wuorinen, and Milton Babbitt (and Ralph Shapey slightly earlier and John Eaton somewhat later?). [See Alex Ross’s helpful aide memoire above.]

    Concurrently, or slighter later, the Foundation tacked in favor of jazz and improvisational musical artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis; and, slightly later, the highly prolific and organizationally talented John Zorn.

    When it saw that it hadn’t really impacted the audience acceptance of “difficult” music by Babbitt, Shapey, Perle, and Wuorinen; it also tacked toward, on the one hand, the humanistically sensitive, conservative music of John Harbison, but also the more vernacularly informed classical music of Bright Sheng, Edgar Meyer, and Osvaldo Golijov (and Bernice Johnson Reagon, earlier).

    At the same time, it kept its eyes and ears open to visionary musical art such as that of the early, well-deserved awardee Conlon Nancarrow; and, later, Trimpin. If Alvin Lucier were to have received the award this year, it would have followed in this strain of sonic experimentation.

    But, I don’t think that is what the Foundation had in mind this year.
    It was probably looking back over its quarter century of musical award making, when it received a report which included a copy of the Richard Harrington article about Corey Harris and some tapes. As I mentioned above, I think that Mr Harris is an excellent choice (perhaps better than some of the others, especially given his relative youth and his intellectual breath and experience). And isn’t there also an appropriate, post-Katrina angle to the choice of Mr Harris?

    I’ve already hinted at my thoughts about the choice of the sublime Dawn Upshaw above. (There was also Marin Alsop, last year; –and Mary Zimmerman the year or two before that.) Again, as Peter Sellars celebrates his 50th birthday today (thank you, Alex R.), why not imagine having the Foundation look back, retrospectively, and imagine what type of classical and operatic culture we might have had the past 25 or so years if Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt, Alice Goodman, and others had had the cultural prestige and opportunity of Peter Sellars, Joanne Akelaitis, and others. Shouldn’t Dawn (and Lorraine) have been on artistic advisory boards advising earlier Peter Gelbs, Gerard Mortier, and David Gockleys about their visions for American musical culture?


  5. Evan Johnson says:

    Can we perhaps attempt not to have this devolve, as these things always do, into another wording of the question “Who’s your favorite composer?”

    Nothing against Bob Ostertag.

    Lucier is the best suggestion I’ve heard so far — not only is he turning into such a fundamental historical figure, but he is criminally underrecognized by the artistic establishment and — most importantly of all — his work has a great deal of interdiscplinary appeal and resonance (no pun intended).

    He strikes me truly as a “genius” in the most profound sense of the word.

  6. fingers says:

    Robert Ashley. Jandek. Bob Ostertag.

  7. Daniel G. says:

    Well, my list is COMPLETELY different from anything listed here, which goes to show that these types of awards (or any awards for that matter) will never make everyone happy….and this is the great thing about our country and the diversity in the US music scene.

  8. When these awards come out, I sometimes cringe. There are many times when I hear these announcements and think “oh, great, now that just validates someone I can’t stand!” I’m not really surprised at the MacArthur Foundation – some of their recent awards have been a little lackluster. But, when I think of who they could have chosen, I shudder.

    On the bright side: what about Alvin Lucier? If we’re looking for someone who truly thinks outside of many boundaries, he’s a strong possibility.

    Then again, this is, from what I understand, like the Pulitzer: the committee making these decisions is comprised of previous winners. So, fat chance of Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Harbison giving the okay to Lucier, Young, Riley or others like that. (Braxton and Zorn might, though….)

  9. bill says:

    LaMonte Young and Terry Riley are both great suggestions. Let’s hope they’re in the near future.

  10. Thanks, David. What about Maryanne Amacher? Or Phill Niblock? People certainly in a league by themselves. And, speaking of La Monte Young, I heard an interview on the radio today with another Lamonte Young, an auto worker, I think – guess no name is unique.

  11. Steve Layton says:

    You mean the Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors fame? (Listening here, folks:)

    That would make a great double bill with Corey D., seems to me. And a MacArthur would be much more in line with the spirit of the ones already given to artists like Trimpin.

  12. Lisa says:

    I would love to hear what a brilliant young composer like Dave Longstreth would do with a cool 500K.

  13. Alex Ross says:

    Right, I missed Bernice Johnson Reagon when I speed-read the MacArthur lists. That’s exciting indeed.

  14. gt says:

    correction: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

  15. zeno says:

    Lorraine Hunt was on my mind this morning when I read that Dawn Upshaw was being honored this year. I wonder what the dynamic on the classical music/opera world might have been, say, 20 years ago if both Dawn and Lorraine had been “boosted” earlier. That is, if Dawn and Lorraine (like Hillary) had been granted equal prestige with such early winners as Peter Sellars.

    And, Alex, with all due respect, I don’t see Bernice Johnson Reagon’s name on your list. She won the award in 1989 and is now, almost twenty years later, being given an operatic commission by the “peoples’ opera company”; the NYCO. Am I the only one here that is interested in Ms. Reagon’s 2010 NYCO world premiere?

    Now, I will leave it to the New York City insiders to talk Gerard Mortier into offering 2010-11 opera commissions to Corey Harris and Alexandra du Bois; and their librettist colleagues.

  16. Alex Ross says:

    MacArthur has given awards to Conlon Nancarrow, Ralph Shapey, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, George Perle, John Eaton, John Harbison, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Osvaldo Golijov, Bright Sheng, George Lewis, and Edgar Meyer. It doesn’t seem as though they’ve been stiffing composers particularly. Why not give it to a singer — especially one as inventive as Upshaw?

  17. david toub says:

    Yeah, I thought of suggesting Terry as well, but it’s been awhile since he’s done anything really really groundbreaking (like In C or Persian Surgery Dervishes. Then again, I could say the same for La Monte Young, so I’d probably give the prize to both of them. 😎

  18. Seth Gordon says:

    Big ups to the Center Of The Universe for taking nearly 1/3rd of this year’s awards, proving once again that we are, in fact, the Center Of The Universe.

    Weird – I’m looking at the website list of previous winners and Zorn isn’t in there. Did he give his back or something?

    Sad how Corey Harris isn’t a “composer” by S21 standards. He doesn’t just play cover tunes, folks.

    Anyway – y’all probably know my opinion already. Personally, I wouldn’t give it to any composer, unless they also happened to be a water quality engineer or AIDS researcher or doing something that would, like, benefit (as opposed to entertain) humanity in a permanent, measurable way.

    But… if I had to pick a music-person to give a bunch of money to just because… any one of these people (or groups – hey, why not?) would do:

    Marilyn Crispell
    Butch Morris
    Tim Berne
    Ry Cooder
    Ikue Mori
    Laurie Anderson
    The Residents
    Bill Frisell
    Steve Reich
    Diamanda Galas
    Sonic Youth
    Pauline Oliveros

    …but my number one choice would be Terry Riley – because if there was no A Rainbow In Curved Air there might never have been a Who’s Next. And I don’t like the idea of a world without Who’s Next.

    But most of all, I’d want it to go to someone who could actually use the money. A lot of those above – well, I doubt Bill Frisell or Steve Reich really need the money, or certainly not in the way some others could use it. And if they’re well-off already, I’d want it to go to someone who has a history of using their cache to help out less fiscally fortunate artists.

  19. Elaine Fine says:

    Dawn Upshaw has done so much for new music (and old music) that her MacArthur award could be seen as is a gift to every serious composer.

  20. zeno says:

    umm … Corey Harris sounds to me like an outstanding composer and musician, and an exceptionally gifted individual. His life work and artistic accomplishment, so far, seems to have flowed fairly smoothly from an exceptional undergraduate, liberal arts experience and a rich, creato-genic environment in Virginia and elsewhere.

    Here is a very interesting long article on him from the Washington Post, earlier this year:

    Congratulations to Mr Harris, as well as to Dawn Upshaw and the others!

  21. David-
    Clearly you haven’t heard Steven Colbert’s groudbreaking “Hiphopketball: A Jazzebration.” Cutting edge to the max.

  22. david toub says:

    When Stephen Colbert writes music that is really cutting edge, of course he should get the silly prize!

  23. Everette Minchew says:

    How long are we going to sit back and let this gross oversight continue? There is a wealth of brillance and musical genius here at Sequenza21 and they continue to pass us by!

    That’s it, I am writing a letter to my congressman.

  24. Didn’t Stephen Colbert say he wanted one?

  25. david toub says:

    I’m with Charles Ives on this one. The pleasure is in creating one’s art and knowing that at least a few people might actually derive some pleasure at what you’re doing. The only reason why this prize might be worthwhile for someone would be the financial assistance that could get poured into artistic equity and facilitate creating or performing something that would be hard to do without more funding.

    That said, were I to be one of the judges, it would have to be for someone doing something very novel, not the same old tired dreck that passes for contemporary music. My picks: La Monte Young (he’s way overdue, isn’t he?), Christian Wolff, Mary Jane Leach and certainly Glenn Branca. Branca hasn’t gotten his due—even Cage didn’t understand his music for multiple guitars. Cage was entitled to his opinion, but truthfully, Branca has created some amazing music that (apart from Rhys Chatham, who is also underrated) is novel and no one else is really doing.

    Oh, and if they weren’t already dead: Julius Eastman, James Tenney.