Meet the next $100,000 composer

Meet the next $100,000 composer


norman lebrecht

December 07, 2021

The Grawemeyer Award, the world’s largest prize for a living composer, was given in 2003 to Kaija Saariaho from Finland and the following year to the Korean Unsuk Chin.

Since then, no woman has been chosen, although there have been quite a few male nonentities and one year when the prize was withheld.

This year’s laureate, the Austrian Olga Neuwirth, was chosen, one suspects, as much for the trendiness of her sex-change opera Orlando as for any convincing artistic supremacy.

Neuwirth, 53, was groomed in radical politics by the Italian Luigi Nono. She made her name with an opera on David Lynch’s film Lost Highway and has steered a judicious course between electronic and far-out fringes and the bourgeois Autobahn. She is a worthy winner.

But the best of 2021?

Surely Missy Mazzoli, Sofia Gubaidulina, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Jennifer Higdon, Anna Clyne, Julia Wolfe, Caroline Shaw, Rebecca Saunder and Du Yun have a stronger claim? And that’s just the women composers.


  • Eric says:

    The Grawemeyer Award is for a single work, not a composer’s entire output. Also, I have a feeling that the previous year’s winner (Lei Liang) sits on the panel the following year and can influence things. That may have changed…


    The video features the ‘ faded out’ ( to use Mr. Lebrecht’s recent term ) Ensemble Intercontemporain , how strange…

  • Liongang says:

    From just a snippet, she definitely sounds more original and substantive than the others named, so they’re heading in the right direction.

  • John Borstlap says:

    That a work gets paid very much, does not say anything about it’s quality. How expensive were the Brandenburg Concertos? Or the Eroica, or La Mer or the Sacre? I think the latter two were surprisingly cheap, and the Sacre did not even produce royalties. John Williams got rich on his kitschy film scores, not on his serious works which are much better.

    The ballet music of the punk piece ‘Aello’ is sticking-out it’s tongue to everybody who is prepared to listen to it, like all the woke punk sound art by this lady. The aesthetic is from the sixties of the last century: cynical, nihilistic, mocking, ugly, only sound patterns, no music at all – but lots of pretension.

    That someone comes from Vienna and has a Beethoven hairdo, does not mean that for that reason, the music should be as good. What do people recognize in woke punk? I think: the misery of their own experiences of modernity; they deserve it.

    • Cohen says:

      …something is happening and you don’t know what it is
      Do you, Mr. Jones?

      • John Borstlap says:

        I think it’s the hair. I had that also some time ago, it made people shy away or getting irritated. They simply should get used to it, after a while you don’t see it any longer.


  • Peter Smith says:

    The first bit of the extract reminder me of the Waltz for Restricted Orchestra by Peter Racine Fricker, which was in one of the Hoffnung concerts in the early sixties.

  • Derek H says:

    Just imagine winning this award as a male nonentity!

    • John Borstlap says:

      That would be scandalous. At least, with this occasion, some social justice is done.

      • Ruby Yacht says:

        How is it justice to win an award solely for your gender?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Because it rewards the persistence of women to stick it out and still be around & continue to procreate, without which we would have died-out. The only justice of this award is Mrs N’s gender, I believe. The least that can be said is that the Grawemeyer people have spotted her gender, although not very much more.

      • Derek H says:

        But my point is that the text states that the award has been won by “quite a few male nonentities”!

        Don’t they deserve some credit for their work?

  • Ruby Yacht says:

    They pretty much always make absurd choices. It used to be limited to the worst of academic composers. Why should it be international, though? Americans need the boost the most. And if you are going to list women who compose, how can you omit Libby Larsen, who is the topmost of all of them? But at that level of success, they don’t need the money.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Surely such awards are set-up with the best of intentions. But to gather the necessary expertise, they form comitees, and a comitee is almost always an average of mediocrity, going for the conventional or worse – who is going to spend his/her costly time on evaluating the average contemporary works that have been acclaimed elsewhere?

      ‘The camel is designed by a comitee.’ Anonymous genius.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    It’s rather amusing that an opera based on a classic novel from 1928 should be condescended to as “trendy.”

    Although my tastes gravitate toward the music of Clyne (and composers of similar aesthetic), I found “Aello” to be whimsical and well-constructed, with clear themes well-suited to the balletic purpose, and beguiling orchestral textures. I fail to understand how that work can be described as “woke punk,” not least because I discern no social (or social-justice) program driving it. Other compositions of Neuwirth have left me cold, to be sure, and I’m unfamiliar with her Orlando, but to dismiss her completely (a la either NL or JB) strikes me as lacking in discernment.

    Thank goodness tastes differ: varietas delectat!

  • Eric says:

    Utterly pointless to include the video of Aello, though. She won the award for an opera, Orlando… The list of previous winners is here btw: