Musicological Observations 2: Do some musicologists really like music?

In a recent scathing article on contemporary academia (‘The Slow Death of the University’, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 3rd, 2015), Terry Eagleton mentioned one university bureaucrat who actively tried to discourage academics from keeping too many books, lest they build ‘private libraries’. Heaven knows what this individual would think of my own shelves heaving with books, though I have encountered adverse comments from some disinclined to do any sort of research requiring more than a small range of standard texts.

As a passionate bibliophile, for whom when young buying books was the ultimate indulgence, I tend to be discouraged by academics in the arts and humanities who do not love or buy many books, though accept that some texts may be better kept in electronic form. But more important, for academics in the field of music, is to ask whether they love to listen to music, and as such go to concerts, listen to recordings and so on (do they have recordings or sound files in their office, has the CD player ever been turned on in years)?

Unfortunately I have encountered too many academics – not a majority, but still too many – who have very little interest in listening to music, at least in a manner which requires any sustained attention. Some even have a sneering and superior attitude to anyone who really cares about music at all, and exhibits any enthusiasm for it. I have even had the misfortune to be faced by the argument that playing music in lectures is a waste of time. I find those people of this persuasion, and much of their work, life-denying, bleak and depressing, and this tendency is fundamentally in opposition with every reason I wished to be a scholar myself, and all the values I wish to encourage in students.

There are various disciplines which, at worst, serve in large measure to enable the scholar to ‘dominate’ the object of their study. These enable the scholar to stand in a position of superior judgement to other people or the fruits of their endeavours, dissecting them in a judgmental fashion, frequently of a dismissive variety. Amongst the disciplines I would characterise as prone to this are psychoanalysis, some varieties of anthropology and ethnography, and indeed some types of ideology critique and other forms of cultural ‘interrogation’ (including some undertaken from the position of gender studies, post-colonial studies, orientalism and so on). Ultimately, many serve to flatter the scholar, and thus inflate their scholarly capital within the field of academia, but what is their wider value?

I fear that this is equally the case with musicologists not interested in engaging with, listening to, and opening up their own ears and minds to music, treating it instead at most as something to be consumed and then even excreted, or basically ignored in an aural sense. I am reminded of the character Tom Townsend in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, who opines that ‘You don’t have to read a book to have an opinion’ and as such prefers to read literary criticism rather than novels. There is no humility in this attitude, no real interest in reading or listening to others, just a desire to gain power by having the type of opinion which would impress.

Similarly, it is too often possible to write musicology entirely on the basis of others’ views of music, without ever listening carefully to it oneself. Some of this can brush off on students; I have certainly read and marked far too many essays of this type. Many appear to stem from a fundamental self-consciousness about arriving at one’s own conclusions (and being judged upon those).preferring instead the safety of the already-tried and tested; in reality just another form of essential plagiarism even when sources are attributed. In a recently published review-article of mine (‘Ferneyhough Hero: Scholarship as Promotion’, Music and Letters, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 99-112), I felt the need to comment that most of the book could have been written without any aural experience of the music (pp. 101-102), and this is far from being the only text by a music academic about which I could say this.

The very last thing for which I would argue (indeed, have argued strongly against here and here) is a type of musicology which adopts a thoroughly servile relationship towards practice, and essentially fulfils a promotional function for practitioners. Nor for various of the species of ‘practice-as-research’ which do not succeed as a genuine interplay between theory and practice (the best realisation of such work) but simply serve as a diary or other form of unreflexive documentation of practical activity. It is imperative that musicologists maintain some degree of critical distance from the object of their study, and that the integrity of their judgement is not compromised by other professional considerations (a difficult issue for practitioner-scholars, in which category I count myself; too many fail to consider these issues). I have also seen too many events featuring guest composers in academic environments which amount essentially to love-ins, whose whole atmosphere preclude consideration of any response other than adoration.

But on the other hand, if one does not in some sense enjoy music, and want to listen to it, then why spend a good part of a lifetime studying it? If the urge is to dominate, in the manner I described above, then I think this is rather sad and even a little pathetic; this type of work (which I link to the field of ‘cultural studies’) rarely has much impact outside of academia other than to legitimise broad dismissal of vast swathes of work without listening. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in a good deal of writing on modernist music; it is far easier to be told that this music is little more than a repository for white male elite privilege, and thus can be safely ignored, than have to spend any time grappling with it oneself. This combination of populist dumbing-down and cynical appropriation of identity politics characterises the worst and most destructive of all academic writing; if the majority of the humanities were to become like this, I would find it hard to mourn their demise.

Happily, there is plenty of musicology which is not of this nature, and carried out by scholars with a real love or fascination for music. Not all music is of course of equal value, and some music is worth studying even when it is not of the highest order. A fair amount of repertoire has fallen into neglect for good reason and would be unlikely to stand up well to repeated exposure today, but it can be worth studying to gain a deeper knowledge of and insight into styles, genres and practices of its time and place. Some music which served particular social functions is of interest so as to understand more about those functions and the types of ceremony they entailed, not least in the case of dictatorial regimes. I have personally even considered (only briefly, so far) why some music might appeal to those of paedophile tendencies, and whether there might be recurrent stylistic features which might even make possible the codification of such a sub-category.

I do genuinely believe that some of the now-forgotten music of the Third Reich or Soviet Union, composed by musical ideologues keen to serve the regime, should occasionally be heard in concert, however contentious this might be. Not least for the sake of us scholars who would like the chance to actually hear it live and gain a deeper sense of the effect it might have had in its original context, but also to force more serious consideration of whether such music demands an engagement beyond reduction to social and aesthetic-ideological history. In many cases of relatively prominent composers active and/or successful in the Third Reich (e.g. Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Carl Orff, Werner Egk, Wolfgang Fortner, Winfried Zillig and others), I can usually identify some musical elements which resonated with wider aspects of the ritualised culture (though not necessarily less compelling as a result – opening oneself to why they (or, say, the films of Leni Riefenstahl) might have been compelling is an essential part of understanding the elemental power of sacralised aspects of that society), but in no cases could I account for everything significant about the music in this manner. And there is no reason to assume this could never be the case for more minor composers as well. I would certainly not dismiss considerations of how ideologies of ethnicity, gender and more might be codified into musical language (I teach students to consider such things, for example in the context of nineteenth-century exoticism), especially in operatic and programmatic work, but cannot see why one would spend much time on these if the music was not nonetheless still worth hearing.

To dissolve musical engagement into a footnote to social or cultural history, sociology, anthropology or whatever is really to give up on musicology as a profession deserving of its own identity. At a time when, in the UK at least, funding opportunities are enhanced by the extent to which one can spin one’s work as being ‘interdisciplinary’, it is not difficult to see the temptation to bracket out the specifically musical content, especially when few scholars in other disciplines are prepared or competent to gain the technical and analytical skills to engage themselves in depth with music.

Musicology remains an important and stimulating profession, but should be pursued by those interested in using their ears, and with a real love or fascination for music. Others would find their time more profitably spent in other fields.

Addendum: A further thought which occurred to me when reflecting upon scholarship as ‘domination’, and thinking about the fundamental ambiguity of sounding music. This is not a mystification or other attempt to render music beyond meaning, simply to point out the extent to which it exceeds attempts to contain it within particular boxes. To me this is a strength rather than a weakness of music (and something of the same can be said of various visual arts, poetry and other media), but it frustrates the attempts of those who aim for total domination. For this reason, those possessed by the will-to-dominate frequently need to bracket out sounding content.

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5 Comments on “Musicological Observations 2: Do some musicologists really like music?”

  1. […] Musicological Observations 2: Do some musicologists really like music? (12/4/15) […]

  2. […] music and the ubiquitous buzzword ‘interdisciplinarity’ in academia. I have written critically about this latter term before, arguing that in the case of music, research and funding pressure to demonstrate […]

  3. It’s as if these people want to discuss something else: sociology, politics, gender theory. And music is a best an adjunct to their arguments. To attend a musicology conference now is a depressing experience. They don’t believe in music. They talk around it, not about it.

  4. […] new music, the need for musicology to distinguish itself from promotional writing, the question of how much some musicologists are vested in their subject, whether it is acceptable for scholarly writing on music to draw upon monolingual sources, and on […]

  5. […] from a position of intense interest in music to one of morally self-righteous judgement, which as I have written about elsewhere, I believe derives in part from a desire to dominate one’s subject, a charge which can be laid at […]


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