Ellen Reid, Composer of prism, Wins 2019 Pulitzer

Janos Gereben on April 16, 2019
Ellen Reid | Credit: James Matthew Daniel

On Monday, announcing the 2019 Prize-winner for music, the Pulitzer committee described Ellen Reid’s prism (p r i s m) as “a bold new operatic work that uses sophisticated vocal writing and striking instrumental timbres to confront difficult subject matter: the effects of sexual and emotional abuse.”

The $15,000 prize is awarded “for a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.”

Aretha Franklin received a special-citation Pulitzer

(The late Aretha Franklin received a special citation prize “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”)

Tennessee-born Reid works in New York City and Los Angeles. She is the first composer to have been commissioned by all of Los Angeles’s four major classical music institutions: Los Angeles Opera (at REDCAT), the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale, and L.A. Chamber Orchestra. She is the only female composer to ever have been performed by — and the first composer to have world premieres by — all four.

Reid’s first feature film score was the 2014 drama-mystery The Midnight Swim. She also contributed music to the soundtrack of the 2016 mystery film Buster’s Mal Heart. Reid and Missy Mazzoli co-founded Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program for young self-identified female, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composers.

The Prize-winning opera, prism, was described in Jim Farber’s SFCV review as threading “a fine line between poetic abstraction and gut-wrenching reality. But it is Reid’s exceptional score with its wide-range of musical vocabularies ... that give[s] prism its overwhelming power.”

Reid’s music is set to a libretto by Roxie Perkins. The work premiered Nov. 29 at L.A. Opera’s Off Grand series and was co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects.

Farber’s review describes the opera’s music:

Reid freely moves from soaring melodies and rich choral harmonies to abrasive dissonance accentuated by the twittering of col legno strings and pre-recorded electronic effects. In addition to the strings, winds, harp, piano, horn, and an array of percussion, Reid incorporates the weird, ominous rumblings of a Waterphone, the bending notes of a Flexatone, and the effects of an SPDSX sampling pad. When Perkins’s libretto indicates a color code, Reid answers with a convincing musical equivalent.”

Watch Reid, librettist Perkins, and director James Darrah discuss the work.

Music Pulitzers for the past five years were:

  • 2014: John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
  • 2015: Julia Wolfe, Anthracite Fields
  • 2016: Henry Threadgill, In for a Penny, In for a Pound
  • 2017: Du Yun, Angel’s Bone
  • 2018: Kendrick Lamar, Damn

The 2019 Pulitzer jury for music consisted of Scott Cantrell, classical music critic for The Dallas Morning News (chair); John V. Brown, Jr., music professor, Duke University; David Harrington, artistic director/violinist, Kronos Quartet; and Raymond J. Lustig, composer and instructor of composition, The Juilliard School.

A scene from the world premiere of prism | Credit: Noah Stern Weber/Beth Morrison Projects

Reached by NPR’s Tom Huizenga Monday afternoon in New York, Reid said she was still in shock on hearing the news of her prize. “She had no words to describe it. But she did have a lot to say about her Pulitzer-winning work,” including this, from an SFCV interview:

The subject matter of prism is about sexual assault and that’s something that happens to so many people that we started working on the piece about five years ago, before the #MeToo movement, before there was a kind of shift in thinking about what it meant to be a survivor. And it felt really important.

It was something that Roxie Perkins, the librettist, and I had both experienced personally and it felt like something that we wanted to delve into together. As you can imagine, going so deeply into something that is so difficult is really challenging. There’s something about the piece that makes people who haven’t experienced sexual assault understand just a little bit more what it might be like.

I wanted the work to be personal. And I wanted the work to expand, to give a point of view from someone who had been through an experience like that — what it opens up in your mind.

So in no way did I want to be alienating. I wanted to bring the listener and the viewer into it and feel it, and through the whole piece there is a lightness and a darkness, and how those things balance together and how it opens up.”

Celebrating the Pulitzer along with Reid is L.A. Chamber Orchestra Executive Director Scott Harrison, who said, “Today is a big day for the L.A. music community and for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, with Ellen Reid, our incoming creative advisor and composer-in-residence, having been awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

“And Andrew Norman, about to conclude his legendary tenure with LACO in that same role, was named a finalist [for Sustain, along with James Romig, for Still]. Ellen was recognized specifically for her gripping debut opera premiered in 2018, the same year in which she had LACO, LA Phil, LA Opera and Master Chorale premieres. We are all incredibly excited for Ellen as well as for Andrew, and for all this means for Los Angeles, truly the capital of the new-music world.”

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