Small pickings: Just one musician among 26 MacArthur genius grants

Small pickings: Just one musician among 26 MacArthur genius grants


norman lebrecht

September 25, 2019

Among the 26 creators and thinkers who will each receive $625,000 MacArthur Fellowships over the next five years, there is one musician.

Here’s the citation:

Mary Halvorson, 38, guitarist and composer
“Experimenting at the intersection of jazz and rock with a signature sound on her instrument and an aesthetic that evolves and surprises with each new album and configuration of bandmates.”


Has music really become so marginal to the American mind?

Full list of grant winners here.


  • John Borstlap says:

    “Has music really become so marginal to the American mind?”

    It does indeed appear so. This is entertainment and has no relationship with serious creation or thinking.

    • It’s not really my kind of thing either, but I would not say that it’s mere “entertainment.” I can hear antecedents in the work of Harry Partch and Ruth Crawford Seeger and in the American jazz tradition. Rough-sounding stuff. And remember, she’s not doing this to become rich and famous. She’s an artist, not an influencer/pop star…..but yes, the presence of only one composer on the list is a not a good thing.

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      The single clip above is just about the weakest representation of Halvorson’s work available. In that project, she was hired by her duet partner to improvise freely on instruments he owns. Halvorson is in fact a fine composer and guitarist.

  • Ross Amico says:

    They just don’t write ’em like that anymore.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Wasn’t Stephen Hough a MacArthur fellow a few years ago? He is a composer as well as a fine pianist. I thought MacArthur fellowships were for $1 million over ten years.


    Does anyone know the fields in which the other 25 work? For example, if there are 25 other fields then music has no cause to complain. Perhaps we should be glad that music is represented at all?

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      As far as I can tell, the awards cover the entirety of human endeavor. Here, I’ll copy and paste this year’s winners.

      Elizabeth Anderson, philosopher
      -Sujatha Baliga, attorney and restorative justice practitioner
      -Lynda Barry, graphic novelist, cartoonist and educator
      -Mel Chin, artist
      -Danielle Citron, legal scholar
      -Lisa Daugaard, criminal justice reformer
      -Annie Dorsen, theater artist
      -Andrea Dutton, geochemist and paleoclimatologist
      -Jeffrey Gibson, visual artist
      -Mary Halvorson, guitarist and composer
      -Saidiya Hartman, literary scholar and cultural historian
      -Walter Hood, landscape and public artist
      -Stacy Jupiter, marine scientist
      -Zachary Lippman, plant biologist
      -Valeria Luiselli, writer
      -Kelly Lytle Hernández, historian
      -Sarah Michelson, choreographer
      -Jeffrey Alan Miller, literary scholar
      -Jerry X. Mitrovica, theoretical geophysicist
      -Emmanuel Pratt, urban designer
      -Cameron Rowland, artist
      -Vanessa Ruta, neuroscientist
      -Joshua Tenenbaum, cognitive scientist
      -Jenny Tung, evolutionary anthropologist and geneticist
      -Ocean Vuong, poet and fiction writer
      -Emily Wilson, classicist and translator

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    In defense of the MacArthur Fellowship program, it’s a program that recognizes achievements across a VERY broad range of creative, intellectual and business endeavors. A small sampling of those many fields includes: 2D & 3D visual arts, choreography & dance, architecture & environmental design, fiction & nonfiction writing, poetry, theater, history, journalism, philosophy, criminal justice, education, economics, health & public policy, legal studies, archaeology, sociology, physical & biological sciences, mathematics — and the list goes on…

    Since 1981, there have been over 1,000 MacArthur Fellows. Among its ranks of classical or cross-disciplinary musicians: Marin Alsop, Matthew Aucoin, Jeremy Denk, Osvaldo Golijov, John Harbison, Stephen Hough, Vijay Iyer, Leila Josefowicz, George E. Lewis, Edgar Meyer, Sebastian Ruth, Bright Sheng, Tyshawn Sorey, Dawn Upshaw, Alisa Weilerstein, Julia Wolfe, Charles Wuorinen and John Zorn.

  • Mr. Knowitall says:

    The MacArthurs rarely select more than one musician each year. I believe that there have been years in which no musicians were selected.

  • william osborne says:

    Does anyone know who makes the decisions about music award?

    • John Porter says:

      Nominations are made by those invited by the foundation to do so. Then, the nominations are vetted by peers, determined by the foundation staff. Then, staff reviews and recommends, and the board of MacArthur approves. Its a pretty sizable process

  • cym says:

    $625,000 grant ? I hallucinate ! Had to watch the video a second time to make sure it wasn’t just a nightmare … Death of Melody, Harmony, Rythm

  • Dennis says:

    Rather than “genius”they typically go to the latest PC flavor of the month. Recall that “genius” Ta-Nahesi Coates received one such grant, despite proudly reclaiming he had never even heard of St. Augustine, one of the most influential humans ever to live. Some genius.

    • Donald Wright says:

      The awards certainly seemed to be “diverse” in that most every Identity Group was represented. I guess that that could in principle be a good thing. Maybe I’m just a meanie and a Philistine, but I wouldn’t have thought it terribly difficult for the committee to have found a more deserving musician than at least one of the awarded artists, whose work ( was featured in the article. But what do I know …

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Dang. Hard to believe. I guess I’m getting old and senile.

    Readers, please come visit me in the Old Folks Home.

  • John Porter says:

    Halvorson is among the most important early career improvising artists in the world. I can understand that the classical folks would rather hear her play Dowland, but just because isn’t a classical guitarist, you might not be so obtuse as to assume she’s anything but great. You don’t get on the cover of Downbeat or featured across countless outlets such as NPR, as well as win any number of awards unless there is something great going on. The message all the naysayers are delivering is that jazz isn’t music. It is likely more difficult to make it in the world of improvised music and what she is doing and has accomplished so far is extremely laudable no matter what genre.

    • cym says:

      That’s not jazz, not classical, not rock, not folk.
      It’s reaching the bottom of nothingness, and scratching with fingernails to go down even deeper

    • John Borstlap says:

      Negative criticism of what the subject matter here is, has nothing to do with suggested narrow-mindedness of ‘classical folks’, but refer to the thing it self as a ‘cultural phenomenon’.

      If the featured video is anything to go by, the only conclusion can be that it is a pathetic, nonsensical genre which has nothing to do with either music or any form of thinking, or any form of cultural achievement. It’s about the production of random sound patterns and see what will come out of it. It’s fun for the people involved in it, and whatever media coverage it receives, does not alter the obvious fact that as a phenomenon, such activities belong to the hobby room, and as such there is absolutely nothing wrong with it – but claims that we have here a form of art, are gravely mistaken.

      Since any aesthetic or artistic standards have happily been thrown overboard in the field of ‘new music’ (whatever that would mean), all kinds of people who would never have contemplated a career in the arts in periods when some intelligent normative standards were still in place, can now indulge in their hobby and in the same time claim artistic status for it. However, that does not suddenly improve the qualities of such hobbies.

      It is quite understandable that many people feel so positive about this thing, because it may offer relief about one’s own inadequacies – ‘I can do that too, so I’m not so stupid as I thought’ – and in the same time, admiring it may give one a little shine of the glamour of ‘being up-to-date’. So, everybody happy. But it does not change anything about the real nature of the phenomenon.

      • Mr. Knowitall says:

        As I wrote above, on this particular video the concept was not hers. Lee provided his instruments to her and required that the two improvise together. Perhaps it would be worth your time to listen to recordings of her playing her own compositions.

  • John G. says:

    You’ve gotta be kidding me! You give someone $625,000 and it’s only going encourage more people to produce this species of crap.

    This makes music produced by the clinically insane sound positively profound. This “music” is objectively a musical dead end. Nothing to see here, folks.

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      It is unfortunate that SD’s post included a video that casts Ms. Halvorson in the worst light. I’ve written above, twice now, that she was hired by the man in the video to improvise on instruments that he provided. It would be better to have include a video of one of her own projects, perhaps her octet or her duo with the guitarist Bill Frisell, or her jazz-pop group Code Girl, or one of her trios.

    • cym says:

      Thanks for your sanity !!

  • Ralph Fisher says:

    “Has music really become so marginal to the American mind?”
    From not only this pathetic excuse for improvisation, this descriptive/educational video from Guitar Power is proof that the McArthur grant is a sham. If this is considered genius in our time, boy, have standards evaporated. She is no genius, not even a decent overachiever.

  • ripkancheli says:

    Mary Halvorson’s “music” is just dreadful noise, hipster NY in-crowd rubbish.

    There are amazing “young” jazz guitarists out there proposing new, innovative sounds, far more deserving of such grants, but they are the wrong sex and not hip enough for the pretentious NY crowd.

    Miles Okasaki (New album this month, an innovator)
    Jakob Bro (hugely loved on ecm, tours the world)
    David Lord (completely unknown still)
    Ben Monder (the most advanced electric guitarist ever?)
    Gregg Belisle-Chi (a young bill frisell protege)
    Lage Lund (a huge favourite among jazz labels)
    Jonathan Kreisberg (a veteran now, can play anything)

    All fantastic players with beautiful tone (Halvorson’s tone is laughable, just pretentious lo-fi garbage), with not just top jazz, improvisational and compositional chops, they often cross into new music territory, but always remain highly listenable and engaging.

    Halvorson managed to make a “Bill Frisell plays Debussy” album completely unlistenable.

    Quite a feat!