Henry Threadgill, a saxophonist and flutist known as one of the most original composers influenced by jazz, has been awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his recording In for a Penny, In for a Pound.
The jury described the piece as a “highly original work, in which notated music and improvisation mesh in a sonic tapestry that seems the very expression of modern American life.” The recording was released as a 2-CD collection on Pi Recordings in 2015, and was listed among the Top 10 albums of the year in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.
Written for Threadgill’s working quintet Zooid, In For A Penny includes four movements that each feature a different member — Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, guitarist Liberty Ellman, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee. Threadgill uses the literary term “epic” to describe each section, which can be approximately thought of as concerti, and also the entire work. It furthers an organizational method he has pursued for nearly 15 years with Zooid, which allows for contrapuntal improvisation within a specific intervallic framework.
“The group itself — these people have been with me 100 percent,” Threadgill said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “Zooid, this is the longest-running musical ensemble I’ve had. It’s not about the number of years — it’s about 100 percent to 150 percent that they give. So they were in for a penny, you see. And if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound.”
The two other finalists in the music category this year were Timo Andres, whose piano concerto The Blind Banister was described as a piece inspired by Beethoven, taking listeners on a “beautiful quest,” and Carter Pann, whose The Mechanics: Six from the Shop Floor “imagines its four saxophonists as mechanics engaged in a rhythmic interplay of precision and messiness.” The five-person jury was comprised of composer and previous Pulitzer winner Julia Wolfe, music critic Scott Cantrell, artistic curator Pamela Tatge, composer William Banfield and violinist Regina Carter.
When we reached Threadgill, 72, it had been under two hours from when his record company had informed him, to his great surprise, that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation:
I want to ask you about this piece. You describe it as an epic — you borrow this literary term. What do you mean by that?
Epics are — they reveal a lot of information. And epics are also poetic, you know — there’s a lot of epic poetry. That’s how I got to that use of “epic.” Like a grand epic, it could have a number of short novellas in it. That’s where I saw this piece. I’m informed a lot of times by other disciplines, and I read a lot. Probably that’s one of the ways I got into this piece, because I was reading a lot of epic poetry. Literature, especially fiction and poetry, has a way of opening up new formats and plots.
I know that you very much design your work for certain situations, and you wrote that this particular piece was designed for “chamber-listening spaces.”
Mmm hmm, right. It’s designed around chasing each individual instrument and each individual player — something that’s to be performed in a chamber space, you know what I’m saying? It wouldn’t come off well in just any kind of space. Some music you can play outdoors — I would never play those pieces outdoors at a festival or something. If I even played it indoors at a club, it would have to be a certain club, because of the nature of that music. You can’t always play everything that’s in your repertory in all environments. It’s just not possible. Well, not the music that I write anyway! It has environmental restrictions sometimes.
How do you describe your role in this?
Actually, there’s an epic for me too, but it’s in between all of it. I didn’t have to write one for myself, because it’s already built in among all of the other pieces. So it was not necessary to have a piece where I feature myself because I got featured throughout all these pieces without having another epic piece. … I moved it in and made it a part of the entire fabric.
What makes this work special compared to the other works that you’ve written for this band?
This is the one that breaks the way I was writing in that system. Let’s use some kind of parallel — let’s talk about serialism. Strict serialism, which is a chromatic form of writing. OK, then there’s these kind of procedures that goes with this strict way. Well, once you throw out those procedures, it becomes a sort of free serialism. A perfect example would be Alban Berg, who would just do things that he wanted to do with the system. So the work prior to In For A Penny was far more strict — my viewpoint was a stricter viewpoint in the way I perceived and treated the material. But then I’ve gone to another place with it, and now I’m in a freer place with this concept.
The Pulitzer Prize is an award that historically has celebrated compositions in the classical style. But your work blends a lot of improvisation with pre-defined composition. I wonder how you see the difference between those two, improvisation and composition.
Improvisation is a part of what I do. I write notated music — there’s a balance between notated music and improvisation that occurs. What is notated is what is written, the improvisation takes place, and the composition contains all of it. That’s what I do as a composer.
I’m happy that the Pulitzers’ views have gotten broader, and seen fit to give me this award. Myself and others who have been working outside classical music — the rest of the artists in the United States, in North America, have been creating art for a long time, and sometimes it doesn’t fall under the rubric of so-called classical music. Nonetheless, it is just as creative, and it is important. The Pulitzer Prize has made a major statement, in recognizing my work and others’, that they have a bigger picture of creativity. Because that’s what we need as a country and as an artistic community, is to have everything recognized.
What do you anticipate this could mean for your career? I know you’ve known about this for 1 1/2 hours now …
[Laughing] That’s like a lady laying up on the table delivering a baby, and as soon as the baby comes out, the doctor says, ‘When are you going to have the next baby?’ Well, I hope this will certainly enhance my future projects, because I have a number of things I’m getting ready to launch next year. And I certainly hope this will be something that will give it a boost, you know.
Will you celebrate?
Yeah, as soon as I get a chance! … The phone hasn’t stopped ringing from press, and friends, and colleagues. Eventually I will get a chance to celebrate — I probably won’t have a voice at that point but that’s OK. It’s a great honor and I really appreciate it.