Two weeks ago, Columbia University announced Steve Reich as the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Double Sextet—blandly described by the jury as "a major work that displays an ability to channel an initial burst of energy into a large-scale musical event, built with masterful control and consistently intriguing to the ear."
Many important 20th-century works—Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the "Collages" symphony of Roberto Gerhard, Annea Lockwood's Sound Map of the Hudson River—could share that description.
Judging from a live recording of the premiere, Double Sextet continues Reich's recent return to the interlocking textures of his classic 1970s pieces, tempered with a trenchant rhythmic vigor reminiscent of the British composer (and Reich admirer) Steve Martland; slow sections exert a gravitational pull toward a somber, sometimes haunted, lyricism. But the work, however fine, is not the point.
Nor is the prize money: The Pulitzer's $10,000 award is strictly third-tier, ranking with fellowships such as those from the Washington State Arts Commission ($7,500) or, say, the Illinois Arts Council ($7,000). Nonprofit foundations up the ante: United States Artists ($50,000), the Alpert Award ($75,000), the Polar Music Prize (approximately $150,000 in Swedish krona, which Reich won in 2007), and the Grawemeyer ($200,000). And the Mac-Arthur Fellowship, which bestows $500,000 in "no strings attached" support for five years, remains the ne plus ultra.
The 2009 Pulitzer represents the continual stylistic widening of a winner's circle once dominated by what student composers decades ago called "uptown serialists." But the prize should have come sooner for any of these singular and stunning pieces in Reich's catalog: Piano Phase (1967), Drumming (1970–71), Music for 18 Musicians (1974–76), Tehillim (1981)/The Desert Music (1984), and Different Trains (1988).
Ex-Seattle composer Steve Layton hit the nail on the head in the Sequenza 21 blog: "Like so many other times, if the Pulitzer board had given it to him 20 or 30 years ago, it might have been important for Reich, modern music, and the Pulitzer itself. These delayed calls reek of the ol' Oscar 'lifetime achievement' award. Bully for Steve, bollocks on the Pulitzer and its process."
The Pulitzer will matter again when it consistently rewards new risk-takers rather than persists as a predictable, valedictory award for those we already know and love.
Hear Double Sextet at www.tinyurl.com/cpghym.
This week I'm looking forward to Seattle composer Marcus Oldham's retrospective (Sat May 9, Chapel Performance Space, 8 pm, $5–$15). Also, trumpeter Thomas Marriott celebrates (Tues May 12, Triple Door, 7:30 pm, $15) the release of his new disc, Flexicon (Origin). And the Seattle Occultural Music Festival presents a night of avant electronics (Fri May 8, Rendezvous, 10 pm, $5–$15) with Joy Von Spain, Matt Shoemaker, and Voodoo Israel, whose "playground and trolly, part 2" blends field recordings and a homemade "Pulse" section from Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. See www.somf.info for a full schedule.