Right now the hot topic in the world of music, particularly classical music, is the Pulitzer Prize. This year the coveted prize, usually awarded to classical composers, was awarded to Kendrick Lamar for his album "DAMN." 

Some classical musicians are, predictably, a little upset. After all, there are very few awards out there that acknowledge excellence in classical composing and having the biggest of those awards bestowed upon music that they consider to be commercial music, and that the Pulitzer should be for more "serious" music. Other classical musicians are of the opinion that "DAMN." has artistic merit, but only on account of its lyrical/poetic content, and they feel that the Pulitzer for music should be awarded on account of outstanding musical content, not on account of the poetic content of the lyrics. A third group of musicians believe that folks espousing the opinion that "DAMN." doesn't deserve the Pulitzer are, well, a bunch of racists. 


During the course of the 20th century the trend in composing, largely, turned toward creating music that was fascinating and complex and brilliant, but also very difficult for the average person to understand. The, very reasonable, viewpoint was that it is worth the work that it takes to understand the music of people like Babbitt, Boulez, and Stockhausen because if you're willing to do that work then there's a prize at the end of being able to enjoy something truly brilliant that is inexpressible in any other way. 

An unfortunate bi-product of this attitude however is that it has led people to believe that the less people want to hear something the better it must be. This is categorically false. There are integral serial works that are bullshit, just as there are baroque minuets that are bullshit - it just takes a lot more work to know if the former is BS. The amount of work and understanding it takes for a listener to understand the truth/beauty that an artist is expressing is not a determining factor of the quality of that truth/beauty. 

Ellen Zwilich, the first female Pulitzer Prize in Music winner, had a performance of her second symphony at Florida State when I was an undergraduate there. It is an incredibly nuanced and interesting piece of music; it also has a memorable first theme - the first movement begins with a theme that uses 4 repeated 16th notes followed by a leap up of a minor 9th. (Sorry I'd link you but I can't find a link to it online anywhere!) Non music majors who are taking certain humanities classes at FSU are required to attend symphonic performances, and this one was no exception. I'll never forget hearing a couple of frat bros discussing the piece after the concert, one saying to the other "I liked it, it was like (a la Beavis and Butthead) da-na-na-na duhhhhhhh!!!" Ellen's music connected with this 20 year old kid on a gut level but we would hardly discount its artistry on account of its accessibility. 

Ultimately one of the challenges for artists is being able to fund their art. This is certainly always a struggle for me - funding a big band is a nearly impossible task today, it was even difficult during the heyday of the big band era but funding is necessary in order to keep making better and better music (hence the existence of this Patreon project). Artie Shaw is famously quoted as saying that an artist must make "three chords for beauty's sake, and the fourth to pay the rent."

NEA grants are not typically awarded to emerging hip-hop artists, and to my knowledge there are no organizations providing residencies in the Catskills to young rappers and producers creating music that is culturally relevant to them. That is the privilege of folks creating music in terms of the dominant, white, art music culture. So commercial viability is a MUST in hip hop. That doesn't diminish its artistic value, it's simply an outside parameter imposed upon the artist just as writing "tonal music" and "pleasing your patrons" were parameters imposed by the culture of the day on Mozart. They didn't diminish the artistic integrity of his work.


There is certainly a great deal of political content in "DAMN." However when I listen to the record I hear a whole lot more. I hear a soundscape: I hear traditional hip-hop gestures turned on their heads, I hear sudden changes of texture, complex rhythmic devices, and layers of created sounds, recorded sounds, sampled sounds, and found sounds.

And that's just what I hear. I would be willing to bet that hip-hop experts hear a whole lot more than I do from being inside the genre (much as integral serialism experts hear more than I do when listening to Boulez and Wagner experts hear more than I do when listening to Wagner). I bet they get signified references that I do not (for an academic approach to this concept for white people check out Mark Katz's Book "Capturing Sound"). I bet they hear some subtle stuff in the groove of the music as well that I'm not hearing. 

Additionally, there is more to Lamar's words here than just their meaning - there is also the SOUND of those words. Berio famously deconstructed a simple phrase, "O Martin Luther King," to great effect in his piece "O King," and in that we see numerous ways that the sounds of words and be twisted and turned and played with. The rhythm, pitch, inflection, speed, articulation and dynamics of Lamar's words are all as much a part of the composition as the meaning of those words. And, if you're listening, they're pretty amazing. 


When I was an undergraduate, one of my theory teachers (Dr. Matt Shaftel) conjectured that we all really listen to music with "19th century ears," In other words, tonality is so entrenched in humans way of hearing music, that when we hear atonal music or modal renaissance music, that we are listening to them in comparison to our cultural standard, which is 19th century tonality. It takes effort to develop 20th century ears. 

However this is really only true for people who grew up in a culture of this sort of music. How would your musical experience be different if you'd grown up with your grandmother singing you the blues and your grandfather singing field songs than if your grandparents sang you popular tonal ditties as did mine? How would your experience be different if you'd grown up in a small village in India or South America? 

The question here is NOT of individual racism (ie you don't think Lamar's album is Pulitzer-worthy therefore you are the same as people who want to lynch black people and re-institute segregation) rather it's a question of systemic racism. 

What I see some people in the classical world writing are things like "I don't think it makes me a racist for wanting to judge the piece from a musical standpoint, can we just talk about the actual musical merits of the album?" But the honest answer is: "no, we can't."


Because you have no frame of reference to contribute anything of much value to that discussion. Neither do I - as I said before, there's a WHOLE LOT that I'm sure I'm not hearing in the album. Unless I had made an extensive study of hip hop and was 'inside' that music, I couldn't begin to understand the artistic merits of a hip-hop record. 

Where the systemic racism comes in is that white people usually believe they can apply the standards that they'd use to judge a Western classical piece to any other kind of music and pronounce judgment on its value based on those standards. Because our cultural standards are ubiquitous we forget that they are not universal.

Some white folks are quick to crack jokes like "maybe I'll commission Kendrick Lamar to write a guitar concerto." Kendrick Lamar probably (I don't know for sure) wouldn't know the first thing about writing a guitar concerto, but I bet you the person cracking the joke would not question Ellen Zwilich's veracity as an artist based on the fact that she probably would not make a very good hip hop record (again I'm conjecturing, maybe she'd make a great hip hop album - Ellen if you're reading this I would TOTALLY buy a copy of that). The implicit bias here is that the white people thing - the guitar concerto - is superior and that Lamar's inability to write one makes him less of an artist.

If you're balking at the Pulitzer being awarded to Lamar, and you're not a hip hop expert who just thinks its a lousy hip hop album, you're essentially upset that the Pulitzer is no longer being judged by a white Western set of values.


In the 20th century western music got turned on its head. The big change was in that prior to the 20th century composers were handed a given set of stylistic parameters and were expected to create something interesting within whatever the mode of the day was. In the 20th century that went out the window and artists explored and experimented, creating their own parameters. The calling card of the era, as Ezra Pound so famously put it, was to "make It new." That ran to its mannerist end in the 60s when artists tacked up dayglo paper in the woods, lit pianos on fire, and sat silently in front of pianos before an audience to see how far the limits could be stretched.

Perhaps the 21st century's great musical calling card will be to reexamine the cultural biases by which we define and judge the quality of "serious art music" breaking down a new kind of wall and opening our ears to completely new dimension of artistic expression - and the voices that go with it.