A Distinguished Composition of Significant Dimension
Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Reminds Listeners that the Pulitzer Prize for Music Can Go to Exciting and Unexpected Works
Josh Langhoff

When rapper Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in April, heads exploded. Not only was his album DAMN. the first hip-hop work to win the award; of the seventy-one previous Prizes, sixty-eight had gone to classical composers, and the other three to jazz artists—Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, and Henry Threadgill—who sometimes used techniques from European classical traditions. DAMN. seemed a world away from this milieu. A chart-topping rap album, commercially successful and critically acclaimed, it had recently been nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. (Lamar lost to Bruno Mars.) A Pulitzer victory for music this popular was unprecedented.

Public reaction was swift and vehement. Recent Pulitzer winners and finalists, most younger than forty, congratulated the rapper on Twitter. Lamar fans were ebullient, although many agreed with the anonymous Economist columnist who grumbled that the rapper’s previous, sprawling, jazz-influenced album To Pimp a Butterfly was more deserving. People who didn’t care about the Pulitzer proclaimed loudly how little they cared. And a small chorus of classical defenders and rap haters called the award a joke, accusing the five-person jury of political correctness and quoting certain repetitive lyrical excerpts to demonstrate Lamar’s aesthetic bankruptcy. I wonder whether these skeptics had the same problem with the 1945 winner Appalachian Spring, in which Aaron Copland subjected audiences to seven straight repetitions of “Simple Gifts”—a tune he didn’t even write!

The most cogent argument against Lamar’s victory was economic. At its best, the Pulitzer has drawn attention to lesser known classical musicians trying to scrape together a living. A Pulitzer can help drum up commissions and sell albums; it serves as a job reference for young composers and reintroduces the catalogs of veterans. Lamar’s album had already been heard more than any Pulitzer winner since Appalachian Spring. Surely he didn’t need the publicity or the accompanying $15,000.  

The most compelling argument, though, is that he deserved it. On a purely musical level, Lamar’s gift is to clearly communicate sophisticated rhythmic ideas. In this, he’s unmatched by any Pulitzer winner not named Stephen Sondheim (who won for drama, not music). Like Sondheim, Lamar is a master technician who uses his skill to precisely convey the expressive meaning of his words. On DAMN. he builds the song “FEEL.” from a repeated nine-syllable phrase rhythm—“I FEEL like a chip on my shoulder/ I FEEL like I’m losing my focus”—that begins on different beats from one bar to the next. The key word “feel” lands on a different accent each time, creating the disorienting impression of an onslaught of unexpected feelings. In other songs, Lamar has his producers build instrumental tracks around his vocal cadences, ratcheting up their elaborate composite rhythms to thrilling effect. Besides his composing prowess, Lamar is a great performer, charismatic and comfortable enough in his own voice that he can alter it from song to song and still seem himself. He excels at what classical critic Kyle Gann called “imagism,” the ability of composers to create indelible musical moments that stick with listeners. (Pop fans call these moments “hooks.”) Lamar’s most indelible moments have become protest chants, they’re used to sell movies and headphones, and I’ve even heard him quoted in presentations by Lutheran pastors. His music insists that America learn to reckon with it.

America’s most prestigious music award began as an afterthought. In his will, noted yellow journalist Joseph Pulitzer provided for a music scholarship, along with awards for journalism and literature; Columbia University first handed out these awards in 1917. In the early 1940s, Columbia’s music faculty lobbied to change the scholarship to a prize encouraging American composition “in its larger forms”; that criterion would later change to “a distinguished composition of significant dimension.” (No big band sides or parlor songs need apply.) William Schuman’s second Secular Cantata won the inaugural Prize for Music in 1943. Since then, most of the Prize’s juries have included one or more previous winners, which until recently ensured a certain self-reinforcing homogeneity in the winners’ pool: lots of big neo-romantic orchestral pieces and operas; plenty of thorny academic serialism; and a whole lot of white men. The list of vital American composers who failed to win the Prize before they died is disquietingly long, nearly as long as the list of critics who have denounced the whole enterprise.

Still, the winners’ circle contains some great, exciting works. No one thinks a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece represents the year’s best music, except for the deciding jury and maybe the composer’s parents. (When interviewed, winners tend to marvel at how they submitted their work to the jury on a whim.) Rather, the winning music generally seems like the sort of music that wins Pulitzers: serious and skilled, forward-thinking but rarely crass about it, and invested in the notion that American music should be identifiable as such. This partly explains why Lamar won. His music strives for Art with a capital “A”, yet there’s nothing too outlandish about it. His lyrics don’t openly endorse murder or Communism like those of, respectively, DMX or Boots Riley of The Coup, both of whom have made albums musically superior to DAMN. Rappers don’t get more “distinguished” than Kendrick Lamar; and, as with his Pulitzer-winning peers, this sometimes dulls the immediacy of his music. But if you’re looking for distinguished music that isn’t dull, you might try the following sixteen champions, listed in roughly ascending order of preference. Each is strange and indelible in its own way.

George Crumb, 1968
Echoes of Time and the River

Attending a Crumb performance is like stumbling upon some bizarre ritual you weren’t meant to witness—the musicians wander around the stage and chant, misusing instruments in ways their builders never intended. Listening to a Crumb recording, then, is a bit like hearing a movie from the next room. Fortunately, he’s a skilled enough composer that his violent string glissandos and stoic percussion parts remain compelling, even when the music consists mainly of dying echoes, as it does here. See it live if you can.

Ornette Coleman, 2007
Sound Grammar

Though his sax and trumpet melodies often drew on the blues, showtunes, and orchestral standards, Coleman could also be the catchiest atonal composer on the planet. This late-career live album doesn’t even rank among his ten best, but at the time it succeeded as a miniature career summation, and featured a weird lineup of Coleman, two bassists, and drums (played by his faithful son Denardo). Whenever Coleman sits out, the sound becomes murky; fortunately, he doesn’t sit out much, and his laughing streams of melody remain captivating as ever.

Charles Ives, 1947
Symphony No. 3 “The Camp Meeting”

Ives’s fourth symphony, a gargantuan logistical nightmare that also contains some of the century’s most purely beautiful orchestral writing, was only published after his death and so didn’t win the Pulitzer it deserved. But his third is no slouch—a matter-of-fact collage of familiar hymn tunes, it veers into unexpected places while always maintaining its sturdy pace, as though wary of being dragged down by nostalgia or sentimentality.

Henry Brant, 2002
Ice Field

Another piece from the “it probably helps to be there” file, Brant’s own gargantuan logistical nightmare—one of many in his Ives-inspired catalog—features a series of room-rumbling pipe organ improvisations, a jazz drummer, two pianists playing mostly tone clusters, and an orchestra whose sections play from different areas of the concert hall. As Mark Twain said of War and Peace, the composer “carelessly neglects to include a boat race,” but he does depict a north Atlantic ship navigating a field of icebergs. He also includes some fabulous orchestral writing—lovely passages of crystalline majesty, the violins slashing like icebergs into a ship’s hull.

Steve Reich, 2009
Double Sextet

Stephen Sondheim once described his shows’ affinity with Reich’s minimalism: “What we’re both interested in is vamps, and that’s what we’ve spent our lives writing.” In its driving piano rhythms, vibrant tone colors, and song-like melodies, Double Sextet is Reich’s most Sondheim-y work; you can almost imagine it framing a scene of (the Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner) Sunday in the Park with George. Its middle slow movement feels obligatory, but the fast movements are some of Reich’s most immediately appealing music.

David Lang, 2008
the little match girl passion

This harrowing choral setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s two-page story sounds simple on first listen, winnowing the music down to a few notes in various stark combinations; but on further inspection, you realize how the different voices intertwine their rhythms with increasing complexity and beauty. Church choir directors should consider excerpting the movement “Have mercy, my God” for Holy Week—I think it’s doable.

Henry Threadgill, 2016
In For a Penny, In For a Pound

Threadgill’s unusual quintet Zooid (the composer on sax and flute, along with guitar, cello, tuba, and drums) represents something genuinely new. Nominally a jazz band, the group improvises using serial techniques developed by Viennese composers a century ago; but where that Viennese music could sound sternly eggheaded or expressionistically heartbroken, the members of Zooid skip right along, mining their assigned notes for whatever novel combinations they can find. The resulting music doesn’t have any melodies to speak of, and it doesn’t sound much like jazz—or like anything else, really—but somehow the band produces an endlessly listenable series of grooves.

Charles Wuorinen, 1970
Time’s Encomium

The first—and so far, the only—totally electronic Pulitzer winner sounds very much of its time, as though Wendy Carlos had written an atonal score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like most of Nonesuch Records’ releases from the 1960s and ‘70s, Time’s Encomium is also extremely cool—a constantly shifting collection of blips and zaps, screeches and hums, all ricocheting off one another and around the speakers with a sense of playful foreboding. Heed Wuorinen’s liner notes: “Those who like complex and rapidly unfolding music should listen first to Side Two.”

Samuel Barber, 1963
Piano Concerto No. 1

Barber obviously loved the Romantic piano concerto, with its fast-slow-fast ritualism and opportunities for quick-fingered nonsense, but here he mostly embraced the form as a chance to pound a lot. The two fast movements are gloriously fun, even silly, full of obsessive rhythmic figures and one cacophony after another. The slow movement is pretty enough.

Caroline Shaw, 2013
Partita for 8 Voices

Like Lamar, Shaw won her Pulitzer at the young age of thirty, and if the two composers share anything, it’s their probing delight in all the different sounds human voices can make. These four movements for a small choir are exuberant, jumping from speech to song to heavy breathing and beatboxing, with the singers sliding through their different vocal timbres as nimbly as they plow through the score’s very catchy notes.

John Luther Adams, 2014
Become Ocean

Not to be confused with the more famous John Coolidge Adams, whose 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls won the prize in 2003, John Luther Adams writes tributes to natural wonders that, in their ability to subtly change the temperature of the room, verge on ambient music. The ocean proves his ideal orchestral subject, as he layers swirling quintuplet eddies atop ominous bass undercurrents and moves from placid stillness to roaring crescendos. Fun fact: the piece is a palindrome—the notes read the same forwards and backwards—but it’s hard to pick up on that when you’re listening.

William Bolcom, 1988
12 New Etudes for Piano

These are mostly jaw-dropping technical flourishes, although one—the “Nocturne”—would lay under the fingers of most casual pianists. No less than in his Pulitzer-shortlisted epic Songs of Innocence and Experience, Bolcom’s piano music tries to devour the entire twentieth century, with special appetites for stride piano and anatomically driven effects (knuckles and forearms get their own workouts), but it all sounds cohesive, in the manner of an expensive fireworks display.

Julia Wolfe, 2015
Anthracite Fields

Wolfe’s thrilling, unpredictable rhythmic writing places her in a league beyond most classical composers. In this five-movement choral meditation on Pennsylvania’s coal industry, she takes delight in jolting the audience: in some places interrupting long, straightforward harmonies with moments of sheer sonic terror; in others, letting choir and sextet swing with the authority of a jazz combo.

Elliott Carter, 1960 and 1973
String Quartets No. 2 and 3

Few composers have betrayed less interest in their music’s artfulness than Carter, whose string quartets resemble fascinating dinner conversations among four strong-willed people who refuse to find common ground. The instruments burble and sputter, hardly ever settling on long, sustained tones together; the effect is invigorating and demands total attention, even if afterwards you’re not sure what just hit you.

Aaron Copland, 1945
Appalachian Spring

You don’t need me to tell you to listen to this iconic ballet—just take the 1945 Pulitzer Jury’s word for it! “Although there are many clichés of contemporary music to be found sprinkled through the score…the effect is of music clearly understandable by conservative theatre-goers as well as by those interested in modern music.” And let us not forget: “Above all, it is an entirely satisfactory vehicle for the dance,” because “the music never obtrudes.” Ironically, Copland revised his unobtrusive score into a stand-alone orchestral suite within days of winning.

Appalachian Spring has obtruded on American life plenty since then—anyone who hears it can’t stop humming it, and Copland’s simple (borrowed) melodies and polite dissonances have taught generations of film composers what “America” sounds like. It’s not the quintessential piece of American music; as this survey alone demonstrates, no such thing exists. But in its ambitious scope, its melding of modernist technique with populist utility, and its obsession over what “being American” means—all qualities shared with the work of Kendrick Lamar—it’s quintessential Pulitzer music.


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to Mexican music.

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