Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and the Polaris Prize vs the Nobel Prizes

Tonight in Toronto, musicians, music writers and just about everyone else whose world revolves around Canadian music are getting ready to celebrate the soon-to-be-crowned winners of the 2012 Polaris Prize. Modeled after the UK’s Mercury Prize and founded in 2006, The Polaris Prize is awarded each year to the best Canadian full length album “without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history.”

On this year’s shortlist, and my pick for likely winner, is YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, though they’re really probably more performance art than band. Their debut album YT//ST, on which Hoshi Neko appears, was released in October 2011.  As they describe themselves: “YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN are a psychedelic noh-wave opera group fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘east’ meets ‘west’ culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets.” I don’t really like to copy a band’s description but this one is so tough, anything I’d write would pretty much sound exactly like that but cheesier. YT//ST is everything that’s ever been nominated for the Polaris Prize put in a colossal blender (with some bjork for good measure), coming out as something more and different than any of its ingredients.

To get this far in the contest, YT//ST was first long-listed in a process that seeks open nominations from hundreds of music writers, broadcasters and bloggers. Each jury member is asked to submit his or her top five albums for the preceding year. Those nominations are used to create the prize’s Long List. After a second round of voting, a Short List is chosen. The final decision is then made by an eleven-member grand jury sequestered tonight until the decision is made. It’s all very exciting.

And funny enough, it sounds a lot like another set of awards (but with one big difference). The Nobel Prizes have a very similar selection process. An open call for nominations is sent to a wide variety of selected experts, including (for the Physics and Chemistry Prizes) the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, all past winners, physics and chemistry professors from across Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark, research chairs from six other international institutions and anyone else that the prize committee invites. With the help of expert researchers, the list is examined and narrowed and then a winner for each prize is decided by the five member committee in each area. Like the Polaris Prize, it begins with the community itself. The prize is awarded to researchers because fellow scientists have recognized that their work is important enough to be considered.  Even like the Polaris Prize, the Nobel Prizes used to be awarded for the most important work in the previous year, though it’s fairly clear why that doesn’t make sense in science anymore.

The Nobel Prize is different, though, because it’s a genre-specific prize. The contributions as measure by how they affect the broad fields of chemistry, physics and medicine: “One part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics…” “one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement…” and “one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine.”* It would be like having several Polaris Prizes: one for indie rock, one for experimental music, one for hip hop and so on, which is exactly what the prize was founded not to do.

But could there ever be a non-genre science prize? The Polaris and Mercury Prizes were created to step back and recognize something so good that it transcends being an achievement in a particular type of music.  The Polaris has been accused of being mostly an indie music prize (and there are certainly albums that will never make it onto the lists because the type of people who submit nominations are not paying attention to traditional folk or experimental jazz) but in what might be called “popular music”, it does a pretty good job. This album, that I think has a great shot at winning sure doesn’t sound anything like last year’s winner Arcade Fire’s Suburbs.

So while recognizing that it’s difficult to do even in music, I like the idea of stepping back and saying “wow, we’re not all chemists but that bit of chemistry really transcends its importance to chemists. It has changed the way we all understand the world.” Surely some of the Nobel winners already qualify in that regard.

So Science, how about it? A transcendent, mostly discipline blind award for the most important contribution to global science. Sounds cool. I definitely want to attend the ceremony.

(To be fair, I’d settle for being at tonight’s Polaris Gala in Toronto but it’s a couple of thousand kilometers too far to make the trip.)

And don’t forget the rest of the great albums on the 2012 Polaris Short List: Cadence Weapon, Hope in Dirt City; Cold Specks, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion; Drake, Take Care; Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur; Fucked Up, David Comes to Life; Feist, Metals; Grimes, Visions; Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital; Japandroids, Celebration Rock; Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, YT//ST

*All quotes and background information are from: Levinovitz, A. W., & Ringertz, N. (Eds.) (2001). The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years. Imperial College Press and World Scientific Publishing.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

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