Readjusting Your Reality: Ellen Reid Wins Music Pulitzer For ‘P r i s m’

Ellen Reid’s opera p r i s m has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music.

James Matthew Daniel


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James Matthew Daniel

Ellen Reid, a 36-year-old composer, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music on Monday for her opera p r i s m. The Pulitzer jury described the winning piece 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 two other finalists were Sustain, an orchestral work by Andrew Norman, and Still for solo piano by James Romig. Reid is the fourth woman to earn the prize since 2013.

Reid’s music in p r i s m is set to a libretto by Roxie Perkins. The work, commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, premiered November 29 at the LA Opera’s Off Grand series and co-produced with Beth Morrison Projects.

Reached by telephone 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 in the conversation below (which was edited for length and clarity).

Tom Huizenga: The story of p r i s m deals with some very tough subjects. Could you tell us a little about your inspiration?

Ellen Reid: The subject matter of p r i s m 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.

Does that mean that you intended the work to be particularly arresting and perhaps tough to sit through?

No. 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.

So how do you go about depicting this trauma — the struggle for survival — in music and in singing?

We depicted it through a non-linear narrative and through exploring reality shifts that had happened in the main character’s mind by making them very real. And then letting the listener discover what reality was – and that reality had shifted from what they thought it was. There are three different acts, and the first act is very magical and you learn that it wasn’t real, and that the second act is very real – you’re in a club and you watched this thing happen, but it’s not literal. There’s no actual violence depicted on the stage. It’s all sonic. And then in the third act, you know what’s real and you have to confront it, which feels very much like what I think the process of being a survivor feels like. You have to like readjust your reality in a way.

Tell us how you use the instruments and how you decided vocally and instrumentally to depict the feelings.

When I think about any challenging moment or challenging memory, I almost feel like there’s a force field of static around it, almost like you can’t get close to that thing because you have to pass through this painful blade of static. What I tried to do was set up these static kind of shifts that the character had to pass through to see what had happened to her.

And then the funny thing is – in my brain, at least – when you go to the thing that the static is protecting you from, it’s really mundane, like a stupid conversation you had with somebody, or there’s something really basic about it. And so this kind of build up, passing through these challenging static moments, we did through electronics and through amplification of the ensemble and extended techniques, working with sound designer Garth McAleavey.

The opera has just two characters: a mother and a daughter. I’m wondering if you considered at any point to add more characters?

We did consider other characters, but we decided to keep it focused and keep it with two. But there is a kind of a third character – the chorus. And the chorus plays different parts in the different acts. In the first part, it’s kind of this beckoning character, like a monster but also as a beautiful monster outside the door. And it turns out, it is the part of the main character that she didn’t see – that she couldn’t see in herself until she understood what had happened.

So if you had to describe the music for someone who has never heard it, how would you characterize it overall?

I would say there are three different sound worlds. The first sound world is really dreamy and impressionistic. And then the second sound world is gritty and kind of urban and based in a club. And then a third sound world is this new music, extended technique – the harshest part of reality. I wanted to feel like the rug got pulled out from under you. You’re in this dreamy sound world, and then the more you learn, the dreamy beautifulness of Act I just feels darker and darker.

OK, here’s the question that everybody will ask you: What do you hope listeners might take away from the piece? Because now that you’ve won the Pulitzer, p r i s m will be seen in many more places.

I hope this piece allows anyone to be one step closer to living a life that isn’t their own. I feel like music has a way of allowing you to understand an experience that isn’t yours. I’m interested in making music that is for a wide variety of listeners. I didn’t grow up in classical music so I’m interested in making music that you can connect to on a variety of levels. And so I do think that there is this thing that happens when you’re listening to music where it allows you to be closer to understanding something. And that’s what I hope people take away.

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Bernie Sanders Releases A Decade Of Tax Returns

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders released 10 years’ worth of tax returns Monday. The documents underscore how much money the populist presidential candidate has earned in recent years, as his public profile has risen.

In an interview with the New York Times before the returns were made public, Sanders dismissed the idea that his newfound wealth undercut his billionaire-bashing message.

“I wrote a best-selling book,” he told the paper. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”

The tax returns show that Sanders earned more than $1 million recently, making $1,131,925 in 2017 between himself and his wife Jane and paying a total of $343,882 in taxes at a 30 percent tax rate. Most of the money came in connection with the book Sanders wrote after his 2016 bid, Where We Go From Here. That year, their adjusted gross income was $1,062,626, and they paid a total of $372,368 in taxes at a 35 percent tax rate.

But the royalties from that book have slowed, and in 2018 Sanders and his wife made $561,293. The two paid $145,840 in taxes, or a 26 percent tax rate, and also gave 3.4 percent of their income to charity, donating $18,950.

During the 2016 presidential primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured Sanders to release his tax returns. He eventually made his 2014 return public: The document showed he and his wife Jane earned about $206,000 that year, including Social Security benefits.

It’s been standard for major-party nominees to release their tax returns, but in 2016, Trump became the first general-election candidate in more than four decades to keep his private. Trump has continued to ignore calls to release his returns, and House Democrats are now trying to use their majority power to obtain the documents from the Internal Revenue Service.

As Democrats continue to hammer Trump on the issue, several presidential candidates have now made a point of releasing their own financial information earlier than presidential hopefuls have in past campaigns.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California, as well as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have all already made their 2018 tax returns public.

So far, those have shown that Harris and her husband made the most money, paid the most in taxes and were taxed at the highest rate.

Warren was the most generous.

Gillibrand (2018 return)
Adjusted Gross Income: $214,083
Taxes paid: $29,170, or 13.6% rate
Charity: $3,750, or 1.8%

Harris
AGI: $1,884,319
Taxes paid: $697,611, or 37%
Charity: $27,259, or 1.4%

Inslee (2018 return)
AGI: $202,912
Taxes paid: $29,906, or 14.7%
Charity: $8,295, or 4.1%

Klobuchar (2018 return)
AGI: $338,121
Taxes paid: $65,927, or 19.5%
Charity: $6,602, or 2%

Warren (2018 return)
AGI: $846,394
Taxes paid: $230,965, or $27.3%
Charity: $50,128, or 5.9%

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Did You Successfully Negotiate A Great Package With Your New Job? Tell Us About It

It's a great job market. Were you able to score a great deal by negotiating for something unusual – or unusually great? We'd love to hear about how you scored it, and why it was important to you.

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The Cost Of Measles

As a measles epidemic continues to spread, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a state of emergency and mandated residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg at the center of the outbreak to get vaccinated for the viral disease. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City is grappling with a measles outbreak. There have been 283 reports of measles in Brooklyn alone, compared to more than 500 nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency last week, requiring people living in parts of Brooklyn to get vaccinated.

Measles can cause serious long-term harm, to individuals and to the economy. On today’s show, we examine how high the costs can go, and where they are incurred.

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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