Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Open Letter to Greg Sandow

Dear Greg (if I may),

I am sure you will recall that you recently held forth on the Pulitzer Prize.  It was amazing, even for you.  If you can't recall what you said, you can find your posts here and here and here.  And then you may recall that I posted a comment which you responded to.  I quote this exchange here:
ME: You're right, Greg. You're absolutely right.
But until the Pulitzer people come to their senses and start to make awards on merit regardless of genre, I think you personally ought to take advantage of the current situation. I think you ought to submit one of your own classical works. It may be too late for any of the pieces on your most current works list at
But aren't you working on a set of piano variations on a tune by Mahler with an alt-classical kick? That would be perfect. Finish it, get it premiered and recorded (or did that happen already?) and submit it now! Before you're forced to compete with Lucinda Williams! Do it!
YOU: Behind your irony lies a point I've seen made before -- that if classical composers had to compete with nonclassical artists, they'd rarely win the Pulitzer Prize. So I'm delighted to, Steve, to see you highlight the sheer opportunism of that position, even if it amuses you to think I'd like to benefit from it. Normally the people who say these things get up on their artistic high horse, and ignore the current of opportunism -- understandable, but let's call it what it is -- that runs through their thinking.
I think of irony as something more subtle and would have labeled my comment "overtly sarcastic" ~ but never mind.

First thing to get out of the way.  You are absolutely right that the Pulitzer in music is in need of fixing.  What you should point out to your loyal readers, though, is that you are not exactly on the leading edge of this issue nor is your viewpoint new.  I'm no expert and have never myself weighed in publicly on this matter, but as far as I know, the whole thing started to unravel with the literature prize in 1974 over Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  Music had to wait until 1992 for the Pulitzer board to get up the nerve to override a jury (see an account of the 1992 debacle and excellent commentary on the current Pulitzer situation posted last year on Deconstructing Jim).  Then 2004 came with the news that the Pulitzer board had rewritten the music criteria to be more inclusive. This resulted in a quite reasonable analysis and reply from composer Stephen Hartke on NewMusicBox with the wonderful title "And the Pulitzer Prize for the best apple of the year goes to -- an orange."  (If only they gave Pulitzers for titles!)  Hartke's response then resulted in a lengthy blog post from you in July 2004 under the clever title "Pulitzer prizes."  As far as I can tell, this is the first time you really weighed in to a debate that had been raging both under and above ground (but mostly under) by some well-respected men and women on all sides of the issue for close to 30 years (since the music community, after Gravity's Rainbow was just waiting for the other shoe to drop: 1992 was an outrage but hardly a surprise).  I'm personally elated that you now, at this late date, taking advantage of a possibly crumbling infrastructure, wish to go from making occasional minor snipes to make this one of your crusade issues.  But in all fairness, I think you should at least give a nod to history and note that you are coming late to this game with your own agenda ~ lest the Pulitzer board mistake opinions for expertise and hire you as a consultant.  Or is that what you had in mind?

Second thing.  I don't believe I am alone in being frustrated after trying, at first good-naturedly, to play in your sandbox.  Even those who try to take your side often end up being scolded by you.  You don't want support from the hoi polloi ~ you want to teach them.  At times there's a really bizarre kind of baiting of your readers.  I remember one recent instance where you warned that what you were about to write would anger some people -- you then proceeded to write it -- a reader then made a comment that demonstrated that he was, indeed, angry -- and your response began "Why are you so angry?"  If the price of a wide readership is to make people voluntarily enter a lunatic asylum while trying to stifle a scream, congratulations.  But, for your edification, this is not what a reasonable public debate is all about.  I doubt it will sink in, but I'll try one final time.  Here's a bit of how it feels to try to deal with you on your own turf:
'. . . .  There's glory for you!'
`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
 (The entire Humpty Dumpty chapter can be found here, but I'm sure you've read it before.  Maybe a long time ago.  It's one of those "classic" thingies.)

And now, finally, what I was really trying to say in my response to your Pulitzer sermon and nearly everything I've ever read by you.  You have no qualms about advertising yourself as "composer and critic."  We all know you as critic, Greg.  But I don't know how many have taken the small extra step and listened to your music.  I wanted your readers to all PLEASE, go to your web site and listen to your music.  That's all.

PS: I mistakenly referred to your variations on a tune by Mahler as a piano piece.  While retrieving the link I noticed it's actually a string quartet.  I misremembered.  Sorry.

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