The classical music world was shaken on Monday when the Pulitzer Prizes announced that the prize for Music, which had previously been given only to classical or (less frequently) jazz musicians, had been awarded to rapper Kendrick Lamar for his album Damn. Given the historic win and the spate of think-pieces about what it means, you could be forgiven for not realizing that Lamar wasn’t the only one honored in the Music category this year: Composers Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne were named as finalists for their respective works, Quartet and Sound From the Bench.
Slate spoke separately to Gilbertson and Hearne, who described themselves as fans of Lamar, about how it feels to have their works recognized by the Pulitzer board and what they think of the prizes’ surprising choice.
What were you doing when you found out you’d been named a Pulitzer finalist?
Michael Gilbertson: I was having lunch with Ben Simon, the conductor of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, which is premiering a work of mine this coming weekend, when I got a call from another conductor I had worked with, Donald Nally. He called to congratulate me, and I had no idea what he was congratulating me for. I was really shocked. I was not expecting this at all, but I’m thrilled.
Ted Hearne: I’m rehearsing a new piece for the L.A. Philharmonic with the poet Saul Williams. My phone just blew up with a lot of texts—about Kendrick Lamar!
Tell me a little bit about your piece.
Gilbertson: In the fall of 2016, I’d been commissioned to write a string quartet for the Verona Quartet. They’re a really great, ambitious group, so I wanted to write them an ambitious piece. When the election happened in November 2016, I had sketches for the piece, but I felt like I needed to start over. I felt the need to write something consoling and comforting.
The opening of the piece was kind of inspired by Sibelius’ second symphony. I use something called string harmonics. You know the sound of somebody’s finger on a water glass? It’s kind of like that. It’s a delicate sound, and it was meant to acknowledge all the talk about the glass ceiling, something that’s so fragile and turned out to be very fragile in that year.
Hearne: Most of my work is political. Sound From the Bench is a piece about Citizens United and corporate personhood. I met this poet, Jena Osman, in 2014, and she was working on this collection of poems inspired by all the different Supreme Court cases that have created constitutional rights for corporations. She takes tons of different found sources and combines them into collections of text.
We talked about putting a piece together. The effect of the Citizens United case on political financing has just been so immediate and is such a huge part of the reason that Donald Trump is our president, for instance—the bleeding of money into politics. I thought it’d be interesting fodder for a musical piece, the combination of electric instruments and human voices and where the line is between a human and not-a-human.
This year’s Pulitzer winner was also very political. Are you a fan of Kendrick Lamar?
Gilbertson: I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I am a fan of his music. I remember when I was at Yale, I heard some other grad students give a talk on some of the theological and conceptual narrative depth in his work, and I was really struck by that. It changed the way I listen to his music. I’m really a fan of his work.
What’s your favorite Kendrick track?
Hearne: I love “Feel” so, so much. Incredible poetry, incredible groove, love his use of sampling, love the burst of intensity and the way he fucks with time near the end of the track.
Gilbertson: Probably “Real” from the album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. There are many things I like musically, but I particularly love the refrain: “I do what I wanna do, I say what I wanna say, when I feel, and I look in the mirror and know I’m there.” I grew up a gay kid in Iowa, and it was tough. Music got me through the hardest times. Those words really speak to me.
What did you think of the board awarding this year’s top prize to Kendrick?
Hearne: I don’t put too much stock in prizes, but this is a really important year because Kendrick Lamar’s music is super important to me and to a lot of people. Hip-hop as a genre has been important to me as a composer, but Kendrick’s work in particular. He is such a bold and experimental and authentic artist. He’s one of the people that is creating truly new music.
What do you think his win means for the future of the prize?
Gilbertson: I never thought my string quartet and an album by Kendrick Lamar would be in the same category. This is no longer a narrow honor. It used to be classical composers competing against each other in relatively small numbers, but now we’re all competing against these major voices in music.
Hearne: I think it’s wonderful. When we say classical music, I think it’s a collection of audiences and musicians that have been grouped together and a big part of that grouping together, over centuries, has been about the exclusion of nonwhite people and nonwhite artists. Sure, in some respects, using violins and European classical instruments is a part of classical music, but so are a lot of other ideas. Especially in America, there are incredibly important musical thinkers who have been kept out of classical music spaces for a long time.
Can you give me an example?
Hearne: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker. The ideas that Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus were playing with compositionally were more innovative than almost anybody in the entire century. We have to ask ourselves why Miles Davis is not considered part of that genre. It’s great that the Pulitzer Prize, which is considered prestigious in some circles, is recognizing a whole tradition of musical thinkers and bringing them into a space that has been, up until very recently, entirely white.
Of course, it’s great to be included on a list with [Kendrick], but it also bodes well for breaking down the walls of genre.
Gilbertson: A few years ago, Caroline Shaw worked with Kanye West after she won the Pulitzer. Maybe we’ll get some more cross-disciplinary collaborations coming out of this.
Maybe you’ll work with Kendrick.
Gilbertson: That would be a great honor.