You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Composer Who Should Have Won the Pulitzer Prize

As a serial finalist for nice awards I’ve never won, I believe in the secondary value in prizes—the value in not only honoring achievement but also in stimulating debate over who wins those honors. Among the major American prizes in arts and letters, the Pulitzers have an exemplary record at stirring that worthy debate. (I should mention here that I teach at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, which administers the Pulitzers.) Among the honors for 2010 announced this week was a Prize in Music for the Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, a gifted composer of lovely and rigorous music in an appealing vein usually called neo-Romantic. I mean no slight in describing her work as highly pleasurable, and I do not take the popularity of her music in orchestras around the country as a mark of pandering. Higdon is serious, and one of the things she takes seriously is beauty; that itself is a beautiful thing. But, since she just won the Pulitzer, I’d rather talk about one of the also-rans: the composer Julia Wolfe, who was nominated for a lively and venturesome piece of experimental music, called “Steel Hammer.” I’ve heard it on a recording that a friend of mine at the Manhattan School of Music loaned me, and, since it has no video component, I’m not going to post it here. I will share a clip that uses as its music one of Wolfe’s best-known pieces, “Lick.” The images, by an anonymous YouTube poster, are random—scenes of nothing much, shot around Los Angeles. Because Wolfe is an avant-gardist, it’s tempting to think of the juxtaposition of her kinetic music with such banal chance imagery as Cagean. Whatever. I love the music. It draws from pop and funk music with surety, and it shows the fertility of Wolfe’s musical imagination. For me, this music provides a kind of pleasure different from but every bit as satisfying as warmth or charm, and that, too, is a beautiful thing.