MacArthur Winners

Congrats to Jeremy Denk and Vijay Iyer on their MacArthur Fellowships. These strike me as fine choices.

However… correct me if I am wrong, but I think it has been quite a while since a composer of concert music was awarded a MacArthur, no? Even though there are a couple of music fellowships every year…

Denk plays Ligeti here; Iyer’s Historicity discussed here.

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  1. I think the last one was John Zorn in 2006 and Osvaldo Golijov before that in 2003. The music winners since then have been conductors, performers, and non-classical musicians. Several of those do identify as composers to one degree or another: like Jason Moran, Vijay Iver, Dafnis Prieto, Chris Thile, and Jason Moran. And even Zorn and Golijov arguably are classical composers whose work spends a lot of time in non-classical spheres too. I think the era of a MacArthur going to a composer who does only (or primarily) “classical concert music” in the traditional sense is over. Not that many of these other winners/composers/musicians aren’t worthy in their artistic work, but certainly what they do is all much more “hip” from a foundation/awards perspective than somebody writing symphonies for orchestras and string quartets. And so it’s not surprising that panels skew this way.

    But there’s a lot of ignorance about the reporting of all these details anyway. When Marin Alsop won her MacArthur (and then more recently this late summer during a spate of articles when she conducted at the Proms) there was a lot of press about how she was the “first conductor to win a MacArthur.” And that is true only if you say she was the first conductor who was not also a composer. Because it would be silly to dismiss the conducting activities of Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Ralph Shapey, and Charles Wuorinen — all of whom won MacArthur and all of whom have (in varied ways) had quite successful and important activities as conductors, in spite of the fact that their primary reputations are as composers.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Carson. I had not come across the Alsop description. In a sense the MacArthur has partly come in line with classical musical culture’s focus on the performer rather than the composer, especially the living composer – another example of Joseph Horowitz’s “Toscanini effect”.

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