Last week when Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, my Twitter feed was instantly filled with woke-classical- music-twitter chastising anyone who complained that a rapper won rather than a classical composer. I still haven’t actually seen anyone complaining about the award, just a vociferous preemptive strike against traditionalists and/or elitists and/or racists who don’t approve.
Well, now they have an actual target to train their ammo on: me. I am disappointed that the Pulitzer did not go to a classical or jazz composer. I am disappointed not because I think that Kendrick Lamar isn’t one of the most important artists (as in “artists.” period) of his generation. I love the album Damn. and have been listening to it regularly since June. Also, Black Panther is maybe my favorite movie ever, and his soundtrack for it was a huge part of its appeal. I even risk my three-year- old daughter dropping f-bombs at nursery school because I am willing to corrupt her vocabulary and those of her little classmates because that’s how important I think her knowing something about Damn. and the Black Panther soundtrack in the year of their creation is. But that doesn’t mean I am excited about Kendrick winning the Pulitzer this year.
As long as I have been paying attention to the Pulitzer Prize in music, I have valued it for the attention it provides to American composers who spend careers toiling in obscurity to create genuinely new pieces of music. And yes, I am most certainly chauvinistic and self-interested in this because I choose to make performing new music a central part of the work of my career. But I have made that decision because I truly believe that in order for the body and culture of classical music to continue to grow, adapt, and speak to our time in our time, we must support composers and their works in whatever way we can. I believe this because times change and we as a species will always need composers taking on the huge challenge of creating something new that speaks to experience that we as a people have not known before. Mozart could never have guessed that the Turks and Kurds and Isis would be at war 230 years after he wrote Abduction from the Seraglio. Schubert had no notion of how climate change might impact a February hike when he wrote Winterreise. Wagner never knew a world with Hitler in it when he wrote Meistersinger. My point is that such masters and their masterpieces are treasures indeed, but although their beauty and genius is immutable, their inspiration, context, and meaning cannot expand beyond the borders of the time within which they were conceived. So we will always need classical composers to innovate a musical language that can speak to its time in a way that no piece written before could have.
The Pulitzer prize has always been—in my view—the single most powerful tool (by a long shot) in American culture to turn attention to and confer a mark of excellence on classical composers who have no other comparable way to become known by the wider public. Kendrick Lamar is one of the most famous and celebrated musicians and composers in America, if not the world. Hip Hop is one of the most popular, if not the THE most popular genre of music in America. Damn. is Kendrick’s third consecutive no. 1 selling album. Kendrick has won 87 music awards, including 12 Grammys. He has been a guest at the White House multiple times, and is one of the most powerful people in the music industry thanks to his genuine accomplishment. So why the hell would the Pulitzer Prize Committee confer its prestigious honor on one of the most feted, successful, and famous musical stars of 2017? Why point your spotlight at the sun?! In my opinion, the Pulitzer Prize can do something so much more valuable by bringing attention to classical composers who are creating great new music but who do not have large audiences.
My song of the day is by one of the finalists for this year’s Pulitzer in music, Ted Hearne. I picked this piece, “Letter to My Father” from Coloring Book not only because I think it is brilliant, truly original, superbly written and beautiful, but also because I came to know it because I got interested in the music of another Pulitzer winner, Caroline Shaw. Coloring Book was written for the vocal octet, Room Full of Teeth, of which Caroline Shaw is a member of and for which she wrote her 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning composition Partita for 8 voices. I started listening to Caroline and following her career because I learned about her and her music from the Pulitzer award. She has been given so many opportunities to create new work thanks to the stamp of excellence that the Pulitzer conferred on her. Without the award, I and (much more importantly) many people in a position to commission new works may never have even heard of her. But she has taken great advantage of the opportunities the Pulitzer afforded her and has be able to grow hugely as an artist since 2013.
And it is because I follow her that I came to know today’s song of the day.
I won’t say much about Ted’s amazing song here, but please check out this description of the work from his website. The way he writes for this unique ensemble creates a harmonic and sonic beauty unlike anything I have ever heard before. Of course, it harkens back to polyphonic vocal writing such as one of my all time favorite songs, Perotin’s “Viderunt Omnes.”
Ted’s song plays a role in the tradition of what we call classical music going back to its origins, and yet is startlingly fresh and original. He uses the human voice and this specific ensemble with imagination and a language that is his alone. This is the kind of work that I think the Pulitzer Prize should use its prestige to lift up and draw attention to. By doing so, it not only helps the composer who wins the prize, but offers guidance and connectivity to the classical music world at large, fosters engagement and a conversation among the entire community about artists that generally do not have a major platform to display their work.
One morning you wake up and a schoolmate of yours just won a Pulitzer. Another morning, you wake up and a bunch of your friends (and their friends) just won a Grammy. That second event might happen more than once if your friends are in the Grammy-award-winning-vocal-band Roomful of Teeth. I’m saying these things partially to talk about how cool my friends are, partially so that you know I’m not JUST posting this song because it’s by my friends, and partially because god I have cool friends.
Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning composition is called Partita for Eight Voices. The voices in question are those of the members of Roomful of Teeth, an a cappella vocal band that fuses styles from all over the globe into contemporary classical music. It’s tough to describe, but seeing them live feels like going to one of the best rock concerts you’ve ever attended in a little club, except it’s also one of the best new music concerts you’ve ever attended, except they’re blending Western classical vocal technique with belting, yodeling, Tuvan throat singing, and Korean P’ansori (among others) while managing to avoid cultural appropriation and tokenization, as far as I can tell. Like I said, tough to describe. You’d better just listen.
In her suite, Shaw riffs on baroque dance forms, stripping them down to core elements and stretching them onto new frames. The spoken text in this movement, Allemande, is taken from directions for American square dancing: “allemande left,” for example. Clever, right? It’s hard to say whether it counts as a song, exactly—does it count if you need more than one singer to perform it?—but I think it does, because I put it on my headphones and sing along all the time.
Today’s selection comes from Ted Hearne’s 2015 composition Coloring Book. He describes the work as such: “I set the words of three great black American writers of different generations (Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine) in texts dealing with identity, not because I could ever pretend to speak for them, but because I wanted to know: Could I better understand their words by speaking them in my own voice? Could I better understand my own perspective—my own identity, my whiteness, my relationship to racism—by appropriating the perspective of someone different? What are the boundaries that separate me from not-me? And what does it mean to hold myself apart?” Below is the text, a poem by Zora Neale Hurston.
Letter to my father
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
—Zora Neale Hurston
from “How it feels to be colored me” (1928)
I am beyond thrilled to be part of this project from the ground up, four years in the making. However, I wanted to bring forth this project with the NYFOS family as it illustrates the shared belief that song is the most powerful tool to effectively connect with each other. A powerful film that documents the Colorado River with 9 commissioned new songs (by John Luther Adams, William Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, Shara Nova and Paola Prestini), sung by Roomful of Teeth and performed by percussionist Glenn Kotche and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, with text created by leading Colorado Conservationist William DeBuys. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are pretty darn good, too.
The Colorado Project
Selection by Shara Nova—“An Unknown Distance Yet To Run”, text by William DeBuys
Released on VIA Records
(Be sure to listen soon! We only have permission to post this recording for one week.)
Contemporary music is my favorite genre to perform.
I recall the time I first had that feeling and even felt some pride in the epiphany. Being unique or different suddenly seemed empowering. I loved that audiences never knew what to expect, literally couldn’t arrive comparing it to past performances or whatever performance practice or the various ‘great singers’ who did it better. I relished the element of surprise and thereby, freedom. I would start to say it in interviews—more than anything else, I love singing contemporary music etc. That relationship would later change somewhat and with time, I’d discover the hardships that sometimes come along with singing too many premieres in one season, for instance, or learning music that wasn’t always as ‘vocal’ as I’d like. Maybe this is why I think there are very few composers who understand and write well for the voice. But back then, I had started my graduate degree at Juilliard and it had a certain glow. Whether it was the composer colleagues I’d met, many of whom asked me to learn their music, often with about a week’s notice in advance, or Joel Sachs who introduced me to surprising composers like Beeson, Schnittke, Dallapiccola or Erikson, I suddenly was busy with many notes to learn! I also had the life-changing privilege of meeting Steve Blier and beginning what would be weekly sessions with him over my two years there. That time together also gave birth to an incredible friendship, one that has kept me afloat over the years. Steve has been an anchor emotionally, musically and spiritually and our sushi dates have gone on for ten years now. But around the time we met, he had a cancellation on one of the NYFOS programs and I got to step in! Talk about an introduction to NYFOS. Not only did I get to sing alongside Carolyn Betty, Bill Sharp, Michael and Steve (!), but I met Ned Rorem after the performance, met Jamie Bernstein, discovered Paul Bowles’ music and lived the unique, intimate journey of what it’s like to work with NYFOS—my life changed and quickly so. Following that, through NYFOS, I would also meet Bill Bolcom, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, John Musto, Harold Meltzer, Paul Moravec, and Mohammed Fairouz among others. As fate would have it, my epiphany was immediately rewarded. And with Steve, I experienced so many amazing musical epiphanies, life-changing ones, many of which involved new music.
Long story short, or long story long, this week I thought it would be nice to celebrate that love and bring to the fore a few composers with truly unique and ‘vocal’ voices that HAVEN’T yet been featured on NYFOS programs. That also helps me simplify my list since NYFOS has done so many contemporary works and premieres! 🙂 So let me start with Caroline Shaw. I can have the fan girl moment and say we went to Rice together—same class actually, back when she was just incredibly brilliant and a violinist. Now a Grammy-winner and the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer, Caroline is doing unbelievable, truly revelatory things with music. She won the Pulitzer in 2013 for “Partita for 8 Voices” written for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. I highly recommend you listen to the whole work and after you hear this movement, I doubt you’ll be able to resist. The piece speaks for itself but to use Caroline’s words, “Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.” During our Baroque music history class at Rice, it should be noted that our prof insisted we learn the dance component on our feet—literally a bunch of music majors divining the difference between the Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia—the titles of the four movements in Caroline’s amazing piece. As a singer, I can’t help but pay special attention to composers whose music and lyricism naturally unwind or spin outwards. The best composers for voice make you forget they’re composing at all. I believe if we are thinking about the vocal writing, then it didn’t work. It should be raw, emotional and human rather than mechanical, intellectual or “innovative.”
The song is surprising when you don’t know how they’re achieving it, but it’s also fascinating to ‘watch’ the process…
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