How come independently minded music doesn’t have a prize? An alt-Mercury, perhaps. The Wire Award, The Resonance FM Reward or The Cafe Oto Oscar, they all have a decent ring, though of course – like the Mercury, the Booker, the Orange or the Stirling – it would end up named after the sponsor. I’ve thought hard about the ideal sponsor: for some reason Pampers (the nappy people) sprang to mind. I guess because when I played with the British Summertime Ends trio, we took a Pampers box on tour as part of Sylvia Hallett’s drum kit.
In Canada there’s the Polaris Prize, and any Canadian recording artist is eligible. In September 2013 Godspeed You! Black Emperor won. Uh-oh. Heartily pissed off, Godspeed issued a statement: “We’ve been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and ‘this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show’ is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds… Us, we’re gonna use the money to try to set up a program so that prisoners in Quebec have musical instruments if they need them. Amen and amen. Apologies for being such bores.”
In 1996 Nick Cave was proposed for Best Male Artist by MTV Music Awards. Nick nimbly nixed his nomination: “My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel - this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!”
Some will say that underground music is above tacky competitions, but the hullabaloo is the point: the Tweets, the column inches, the bitching, the I’m-above-all-this-nonsense stance, they’re all part of the fun.
In fact the UK already has an award for musicians, though few are aware of it: the Paul Hamlyn. Previous recipients include Philip Jeck and John Butcher, and in 2012 it went to Steve Beresford, Eliza Carthy and composer Edmund Finnis. An extension of an award previously confined to visual artists, the Paul Hamlyn is financially generous but highly discreet – an under-the-radar award for under-the-radar music. Which misses the point, that prizes are about celebration, making a fuss, and a noisy one. The Hamlyn’s approach implies that publicity is a vulgar activity, with the unintended effect that the award becomes simply about the money.
Awards need losers. This is the shortlist: one winner and five losers. Here’s the savage fun of the contest, the sporting event: in Gore Vidal’s words, “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.” The gnashing of teeth enhances my fanfare.
And should this be an award for records, like the Mercury, or performances, like the Place Prize? We love a musical ruck, and even the Worthing Symphony Orchestra has its annual Sussex Piano Competition. In 2009 Diego Chamy ran an Interaktion Festival in Berlin: 16 improvising duos, randomly chosen and judged by the audience, competing for cash prizes. The event was so controversial that the local improvised music website refused to list it.
Finally, here’s a good old-fashioned musical battle, from a film set in 1950s Thailand. Two ensembles led by the ranad – Thailand’s wooden xylophone – operating in a dangerous political climate, when the government wants to ban traditional music in the interests of modernising the country. Homrong (The Overture) is like a Bruce Lee movie, only with xylophones instead of nun chucks. The bad guys dress in black, and onlookers gasp as the tempo hoots up. The groups seem equally matched, so the king proposes that the two ranad virtuosi should battle it out head to head. Will young Sorn’s flawless tremolos win the day? Will his opponent drip sweat all over his instrument? Or will the wooden keys catch fire? Who wouldn’t enjoy this hyper-competitive stand-off, an invigorating alternative to the prissy, after-you cooperation that pervades improvised music these days? I’m just asking.