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25 September 2008



Yo man,

I totally feel you on the awards-meant-to-shore-up-award-giver's-rep-not-improve-the-art. I felt that way about the Brook award at the time, and I feel that way about the Kushner award too. One thing that's interesting about the MacArthur awards is that I feel like in many categories, they've done a pretty good job of awarding early/early-mid career artists. John Sayles was pretty early on into his filmmaking career when he got a MacArthur. Sarah Ruhl hadn't had a NYC premiere yet when she got the award. I mean, she's produced everywhereallthetime now, but almost all of that is older pre-genius-award stuff.

James Hirschfeld

Correct me if I am wrong but wasn't Ken Vandermark 35 when he won the MacArthur grant?

James Hirschfeld

Whoops! I accidentally hit post before I meant to.

To your point about who gets these awards, I couldn't agree more. Give them to young people who will use every last penny of it---not just on touring, and recording, but just general promotion of their careers and their music.

You might agree that it is the same situation with composers! Right? People with lots of money want John Adams to win their grant. He'll write a big piece and it brings publicity to the organization. There are so many talented young composers and the cost of recording (as you know) is basically prohibitive.

My only quibble would be that rather than enormous grants for 1 person, I'd be in favor of smaller grants. Not $1000, because that is kind of useless, but $10k to $20k. Enough for a record and a small tour. I think $500k divided amongst 20 people would produce more work and obviously a greater variety. It would stimulate the jazz economy, which could use a little stimulation.


Correct me if I am wrong but wasn't Ken Vandermark 35 when he won the MacArthur grant?

You are correct and I've corrected the post. For some reason I had it in my head that he'd gotten the nod more recently, but his MacArthur is from 1999. (Sweet lord, that is almost ten years ago. Tempus fucking fugit.)

My only quibble would be that rather than enormous grants for 1 person, I'd be in favor of smaller grants.

In general, I would absolutely agree with this -- arts funding dollars should go to supporting the community, not handing out a huge jackpot to select individuals. However, I am inclined to make an exception for the the MacArthur, which occupies a special place in American culture (partly because of the enormous size of the grant and the relatively small number of Fellowships awarded). There's a place for one award like that. The problem is when all arts funding tries to be like the MacArthur, except with less risk-taking.


People who hammer away at the outlandish size of the MacArthur grants have a point, but you gotta remember -- this is America, folks. Here in America, money isn't everything...it's the only thing. In America, nothing but cold hard cash matters. Genius? Unimportant. Talent? Irrelevant. Skill? Inconsequential. An awe-inspiring body of work? Worthless.

So if you want to get everyone's attention here in the United States of Amnesia, ya gotta bludgeon 'em with cash. Hard cash. And plenty of it. Then the general public pays attention.

The reason for the ridiculous size of the MacArthur awards is simple and obvious: so the award gets taken seriously. Here in America, the only way to be taken seriously is to heap up a great big Himalayan mountain 'o cash. The folks who run the MacArthur awards aren't stupid, so they know this. As a result, their awards get taken very seriously indeed. Much more seriously than, say, the Pulitzer prize for music, or the Grawemeyer prize. I mean...seriously. Can anyone in the general public name last year's Pulitzer or Graqemeyer winner for music? But those MacArthur fellows, they get the press. Why? HALF A MILLION SCUDI, BABY! GIMME THE MONEY! SHOW THE MONEY! SHOW ME THE MONEY!

That's what it's all about here in the United States of Amnesia. The MacArthur award committee knows this. The only way they could improve on the publicity and prestige of their award would be, like, you know, add some naked hookers. And some bling. You know, drive the MacArthur winners around in a big ole pink pimpmobile with gold chains around their necks reading YO, I'S THE MACARTHUR SHIZLITT. That would get some serious attention. The press would be over all that one, baby.

Now it's time to piss everyone off because, as usual, this year's MacArthur awards missed all the obvious geniuses. The musicians who have really made breakthroughs, the amazing people who blow the top out of the chart for creativity and imagination.

Musicians who should get a MacArthur, but never will, because they're just too far out there:

[1] Ben Johnston. Obvious choice. Can never win a MacArthur because, after all, he's an intonational nigger, and an uppity one at that.

[2] Kraig Grady. Builds his own microtonal instruments, uses Erv Wilson's scale horograms as rhythms as well as tunings, creates his own imaginary culture of the island of Anaphoria from scratch, he's released at least half a dozen CDs, but nooooooo, Kraig can never be considered for a MacArthur. Standard stuff. Give the awards only to the safe choices, never the imaginative people.

[3] Trimpin. Obviously, this guy can't be given the time of day. He blurs the distinction twixt sculpture and musical composition, he refuses to use scores, his musical work is just wayyyyyyyyy too transgressive. In the tradition of the Mozart bitch-slap "Too many notes," what we've got here is "Too much creativity." The MacArthur committee's collective brains short-circuited. They couldn't deal with this guy's work. It too inventive.

[4] Tom Nunn. Obviously untouchable. A guy who writes a 200-plus-page book on musical improvisation called The Wisdom of the Impulse, as well as building his own instruments, and creating his own ensemble to play said self-made instruments using said improviational techniques...nahhhh. Let's give this year's MacArthur to a violinist who pens her own Beethoven cadenzas. That's creativity. Earth to MacArthur committee... Earth to MacArthur committee... Come in, MacArthur committee...

[5] Mari Kimura. Aside from doing interactive real-time violin duets with MAX/MSP, she's extended Garbuzov's work from the 1920s by using subharmonics on her violin (don't worry, you've never heard of Garbuzov and neither have the MacArthur people. Just go back to sleep, folks.). Of course, she's another untouchable. Ya gotta conform to get those goodies. Play outside 12 equal? Tough tit, you're an untouchable. Get back to your ghetto, peon.

[6] Pamela Z. Of course she's out of the question. People who use synths aren't real musicians, as everyone knows.

[7] William Schottstaedt. Arguably the greatest living American composer. Naturally, you've never heard of him. Standard stuff. "Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia..."

[8] Bill Wesley. Obviously creating an orhcestra of your own instruments, as well as becoming a virtuoso in their performance, means nothing, Much better to give the MacArthur award to someone who scribbles reviews of Sibelius symphonies for the New Yorker. Yeah! That's the ticket! That's real creativity -- french-kissing Stockhausen's bunghole, that's true musical inventiveness.

[9] Johnny Reinhard. Gotta maintain a complete blackout on this guy's near-30-year concert series of microtonal music. Can't have any of that pesky creativity making inroads into the new music scene. Nope, shut this guy out of the MacArthurs hard, let's give the award to a music critic for praising Schoenberg. That's genius, all right.

[10] Let's just toss in a whole dumptruck full 'o names that are obvious candidates, but will never get the time of day from the MacArthur bozos: Rhys Chatham, Pauline Oliveros, Laetitia Sonami, Michael Gordon, John Luther Adams, Kyle Gann, Larry Polansky, Jon Appleton, the former members of The Hub, Erling Wold, Stephen James Taylor, Susan Rawcliff, Skip LaPlante... The list goes on and on. Everyone knows who these musicians are. Everyone knows they're struggling, scraping along to make ends meet. Everyone knows their 20-plus year track record of creativity and innovation.

So, yeah, next year let's give more MacArthurs to classical violinists who write out Beethoven cadenzas.

Depressing, isn't it?

ben wolfson

Since the point of the MacArthur awards is in part to relieve the burdens of financial constraint that might otherwise prevent innovation or whatever (sez so right here), it's not just an abstract consideration that favors giving them out to younger, or if not younger, less well-known or more impoverished, people in preference to established lions; the award guidelines themselves make some of their selections a little odd.

Let's give this year's MacArthur to a violinist who pens her own Beethoven cadenzas. That's creativity

Actually, has Robert Levin won one? He actually improvises his cadenzas, something (shockingly enough) more or less unheard of.

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