USA Music Panel for 2010

Cristian Amigo (Chair)

Composer, Guitarist, and Producer, New York, NY

Peter Golub

Director, Sundance Film Music Program, Los Angeles, CA

Martha Gonzalez

Musician, Quetzal, Fandango sin Fronteras, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Jenny Lin

Pianist, New York, NY

Hannibal Lokumbe

Composer, Trumpeter, andUSA Cummings Fellow, Bastrop, TX

Statement by Cristian Amigo

There are few awards that have the ability to substantively affect the lives of musicians who work outside of the commercial music world. The United States Artists Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Grawemeyer Award are among a handful that confer both a substantial amount of money and an enhanced professional status to the musicians and composers talented and fortunate enough to receive these awards. Money buys precious time, instruments, studios, and the talents of musicians needed to realize artistic projects. Sometimes, paying the rent or health insurance are also investments that make further creativity possible—after all, the artists are themselves the instruments through which their art flows. And artists also work in a highly competitive economy of prestige. The USA Fellowship provides an influx of cultural capital to the winner, enabling access to previously unavailable institutions and persons. Phone calls now get returned and artists get to participate inside the conversation rather than being on the outside of the circle listening in. Opportunities ensue.

The USA Fellowship is particularly noteworthy in its combination of excellence and aesthetic broadmindedness, as exemplified by the very different types of musicians who have been USA Fellows. Traditional Arabic and Afro-American music, American roots music, Muslim music of the Southern Philippines, experimental jazz, avant-garde, new classical music, and unclassifiable are just some of the genres that are home base for USA Fellows. All of the awardees are musicians of the highest caliber chosen by a panel of peers that include composers, musicians, and music industry persons who work with music and contexts as varied as those of the USA Fellows.

Excellence is the primary criterion, the standard, by which all nominated applicants are considered. But what exactly is excellence in music and how is it measured? USA wisely leaves those kinds of decisions and discussions, sometimes heated, sometimes unanimous, to the music panelists themselves. In my two years of panel service, the discussions varied widely. Important questions formed around the concept of impact: the impact of an award on culture, on society, in the field, and on the creativity and lives of artists. Although the USA Fellowship is not based on completing a specific project, artist excitement about potential projects generally makes a good impression on panelists. Excitement is contagious and stands out. Thoughtfulness is also valued.

When all of the artists under consideration are already technically and aesthetically excellent, excellence in music is ultimately a qualitative factor rather than a quantitative one. Interestingly, the top candidates are usually clear, often unanimous choices, while the more difficult, sometimes contentious choices are about those artists circling around the cutoff point between yea and nay. I think it’s physically, mentally, and emotionally difficult to make decisions that can so greatly affect the lives of persons who are all deserving on some level. Ultimately, I find solace thinking about the joy and creativity the award will spark in the new 2010 USA Fellows. Congratulations to them all.