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Film Score Click Track
April 2011


As of this writing, only one film score has ever won the Pulitzer Prize for Music—Virgil Thomson's score for the 1948 documentary LOUISIANA STORY. The Pulitzers have long been the exclusive domain of experimental works from the world of academia, an insular, incestuous world in which anything that even slightly smacks of populism is called into question, if not immediately thrown out.

When the late publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer left stipulations in his will for the formation of the Pulitzer Prizes, there was no mention of music. Following the awarding of the first prizes in 1917, it would be 26 years before Music was added to the roster in 1943.

According to Pulitzer rules, the Music award is "for distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year." The award carries a cash prize of $10,000 as well. Not exactly chicken feed, but not a particularly robust sum either. It's the prestige that matters when it comes to a Pulitzer.

Of particular note is the word "recording," which was part of the latest rule changes from 2004. Beginning in 2005, Pulitzer juries and the Board would now consider a broader range of musical compositions, "from the contemporary classical symphony to jazz, opera, choral, musical theater, movie scores and other forms of musical excellence."

Composers were no longer required to submit a score with their entry and the board widened its pool of jurors from just composers and critics to include "presenters of musical programs, orchestra conductors, musical arts and other knowledgeable members of the music world."

Former finalists like Stephen Hartke publicly criticized the changes, and John Harbison (a winner in 1987) called them "a horrible development." “The Pulitzer is one of the very few prizes that award artistic distinction in front-edge, risk-taking music," said Lewis Spratlan, who won the Prize in 2000. "To dilute this objective by inviting...musicals and movie scores, no matter how excellent, is to undermine the distinctiveness and capability for artistic advancement...”

"What's really going on here," wrote music critic Greg Sandow, "is a last-ditch defense of the obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be art...I wonder if Hartke, Harbison, and others aren't (whether they know it or not) simply trying to protect their turf, trying to preserve some distinction, some chance at prestige and momentary fame, that might elude them if the Pulitzer prize were given simply for artistic merit." 

Since then, the Pulitzer seem to be trying to make up for lost time, awarding slightly more populist composers like David Lang (co-founder of Bang on a Can) and Steve Reich. Even avant garde jazz legend Ornette Coleman won in 2007 for his Sound Grammar, the first album to ever be award the prize. No film score has been submitted to my knowledge, and the closest film music has come to the Prize was Eliot Goldenthal, a 2007 finalist for his opera Grendel.

Even though it was for a film score, Thomson's win for LOUISIANA STORY fits in with Pulitzer tradition, even that early in the awarding of the category. Thomson was a respected critic and classical composer, and the film was a documentary (as opposed to a Hollywood hit) with a humanitarian and ecological bent (i.e., Big Oil invades the backwoods of a Louisiana bayou). 

When the Prizes are announced on April 18, will this be the year that film music finally cracks into the Pulitzers' contemporary perview? Doubtful. But I'll be watching. 

Just in case...

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    Five tracks from Pulitzer Prize-winning film composers...

    LOUISIANA STORY (1948), Virgil Thomson
    Chorale (The Derrick Arrives)
    THE CITY (1939), Aaron Copland
    The New City
    ALTERED STATES (1980), John Corigliano
    The Final Transformation
    HOLOCAUST (1978, TV), Morton Gould
    Berta and Josef Theme
    PETER IBBETSON (1936), Ernst Toch
    Main Title

    Mark Isham continues to impress with his new label, MIM (aka Mark Isham Music). His second release is the score to Robert Redford's upcoming Lincoln drama, THE CONSPIRATOR. Like his earlier release of THE MECHANIC, the CONSPIRATOR score is available in three different editions. The limited edition set even comes with a cool T-shirt (see below). As a lover of all things Lincoln, this is one film and score that I'm looking forward to.
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