The Pulitzer Demographic

Last week, Columbia University announced the winners of the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes. Most of these go to journalists and authors. But each year, the Pulitzer Prize Board honors a single musical composition and its composer with $10,000 and the most impressive first line a bio can have in this field.

This year’s winner is Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Anthracite Fields for chorus and chamber ensemble. Columbia also announces finalists, which I can only imagine is both an extraordinary honor and an excruciating so-near-yet-so-far frustration for the composers. The two finalists this year were a saxophone concerto by Lei Liang and a piano trio by John Zorn. You can hear recordings of some of these, though not all of them. More on that later.


A few days later, a pseudonymous Reddittor posted this infographic about the demographics of Pulitzer winners over the last twenty years (1995–2015). Admittedly, with only one composer awarded per year, this is a very small sample size. I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from these graphs for that reason. Furthermore, much of what the graphs show is exactly what you’d think it would show. However, there are still several points at which the extent of the homogeny was still quite surprising to me.

For example, it will shock precisely no one that of the twenty most recent Pulitzer-winning composers, sixteen are white, only three are black, and only one (Zhou Long) is Asian-American. If we delve further into that, only one of the works by a black composer is primarily of the concert music tradition: George Walker’s Lilacs. The other two works — Wynton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields and Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar — are jazz works. I think it’s great that the Pulitzer committee is starting to recognize works outside of the concert music tradition, but is that the only place we can find non-white composers?

One thing that I did find surprising: the near-complete lack of geographic diversity. For example, according to the author of this infographic, half of the twenty winning composers since 1995 are “associated with Bang on a Can or Alarm Will Sound” (the extent of the association is somewhat ambiguous). In fact, several people have pointed out that the last two works to win the award are recorded by Cantaloupe Records, the record label off-shoot of Bang on a Can. BoaC and AWS are both fantastic organizations that have done wonderful things for composers and music, but they are only two out of thousands, and both are based in New York City. Of course, those organizations have ties to dozens, if not hundreds, of the most prominent composers in the U.S. This particular sentiment probably says more about the reach and network of BoaC and AWS than it does about Pulitzer nepotism. A much more concrete expression of professional in-breeding comes in the form of college degrees. The preponderance of degrees from just four institutions: Columbia (which hosts the Pulitzer), Julliard, Harvard, and Yale.

This is the sort of thing that I might have expected to be more the case a few decades ago, when the award only went to works that had received a premiere performance in the previous calendar year. In that case, how could the committee help but to select works with a strong NYC/Boston connection? They could only award works that they were likely to have heard or heard about. But since 2004, the award was expanded to include works that received either their premiere performance or their premiere recording in the previous calendar year. Presumably, this could include works slightly older, but who only became known by the musical literatti more recently.

All of this, however, is secondary to a more important question:

Who, precisely, gives a flying fuck who wins the Pulitzer award?

Well, now we’ve got a good question. There, I think we can turn to the Pulitzer Prize Board’s own description of the award. The citation states that it is “for distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.”

Read that again.

There’s not superlative there at all. It’s not “the best”, “the prettiest”, “the most popular”, “the most complex”, “the most innovative”, or even “the most distinguished”. It’s just a “distinguished composition”. Nobody is saying this is the only thing you should know from last year. Lots of folks have been slurping Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s recording of Andrew Norman’s Play from December 2014. Despite the plaudits and Norman’s Yale pedigree, it didn’t get a sniff. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Play isn’t worth your time. And I do not intend to dilute the significance Wolfe or any other Pulitzer-winner. However, think about the Pulitzer announcement, not as a beatification, but rather a recommendation from some people who know some things.

The subtext of this list of Pulitzer winners is not “these are the most important” or “these are the best”. Instead, it is “these are some important Americans that culturally aware people should probably know something about.” Should that list be more diverse? Of course it should. But let’s not endow it with any special authority that we don’t grant to any similar list.

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