Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 1. Papers of Larson Powell and Eva Moreda Rodriguez

At this year’s Royal Musical Association annual conference, at the University of Manchester/Royal Northern College of Music, I was very pleased to convene a panel on ‘Rethinking Contemporary Musicologies: Disciplinary Shifts and the Risks of Deskilling’ (12 September 2019). These featured the following speakers and papers:

Larson Powell (University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA): ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Eva Moreda Rodriguez (University of Glasgow): ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’.

Darla M. Crispin (Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway): ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’

Peter Tregear (University of Melbourne, Australia): ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.

Below, I reproduce my Introduction to the panel in full, then give a detailed account of the first two papers (as some of these are drafts for chapters in the book, I prefer not to reproduce them verbatim). In the second part of this, I will do the same with the other two papers and also give some wider reflections of my own on the very well-attended and constructive event.

 

Ian Pace, Introduction

Twenty years ago, in 1999, Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist published the co-edited volume Rethinking Music. This followed in the wake of a series of publications now associated with the ‘New Musicology’ from the early 1990s, but the scale of this publication and its appearance from such a major publisher as Oxford University Press indicated how various tendencies had entered the musicological mainstream. Twenty years later, Peter Tregear and I are in the process of co-editing a new volume, Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, which will appear from Routledge in 2020. This brings together a range of leading scholars who all offer critical perspectives on both developments in English-speaking academia which were relatively new when Cook/Everist was published and the state of play in more long-established realms of research and teaching. Four of the contributors are here and will be giving papers, most of which relate to their chapters in the book.

I would emphasise that this book deals specifically with English-speaking academia. This is not because of any type of provinciality, let alone any assertion of centrality of Anglophone contributions to the disciplines. Rather, the editors simply feel that the issues at stake in the Anglosphere, while far from homogeneous, are somewhat distinct from those elsewhere, and as such warrant separate consideration.

Amongst the other chapters in the book – this is not an exhaustive list – are Paul Harper-Scott on musicology, the middlebrow and questions of demographics amongst academics, Christopher Wiley on popular music education and the question of specifically musical engagement, Mu-Xuan Lin on body politics and gendered orthodoxies relating to contemporary composition and the ‘New Discipline’, myself on the application of ethnomusicological approaches to the study of Western art music, then Michael Spitzer on the state of musical analysis, Alan Davison on that for music history, Nicole Grimes on neo-liberalism and the study of Western art music, and case studies relating to issues provoked by the work of Richard Taruskin, Nicholas Cook and Georgina Born, written by Frank Cox, me and Joan Arnau Pamiès respectively.

In general, the contributors can be said to share varying degrees of scepticism towards some aspects of such Anglophone musicology which can be said either to have become orthodoxies, or are sufficiently widespread as to be worthy of critical interrogation. In short, it is time to cast a critical eye on what the discipline has become. Key questions which recur in many essays have to do with the demands of interdisciplinarity, especially whether some allegedly interdisciplinary work entails more than a superficial injection of a handful of concepts or buzzwords from other disciplines (as has been argued by Giles Hooper, another contributor to the book) rather than more rigorous engagement, and the complementary issue of ‘deskilling’ of musicology.

The term ‘deskilling’ was coined by Marxist theorist Harry Braverman in his Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1974) to characterise the lowering of skill levels as part of a process of progressive estrangement and alienation of workers, relating to the division of labour, in the process increasing their dispensability. As musicology has supposedly become more diverse, many of us argue that various core skills and knowledge, not least relating to basic musicianship, notation, familiarity with history and repertoire, and especially theory and analysis, can no longer be assumed on the part of students, graduates, and indeed many academics themselves. This reduces the possibility of broader interactions between those working in different sub-disciplinary areas, and limits the ability of many to contribute to certain types of core curriculum.

What remains, at worst, is an atomised profession permeated by disputes and struggles for territory and power, in place of genuine quests for knowledge, however utopian such ideals might be. Such a situation is exacerbated and in some ways fuelled by neo-liberal reforms to higher education, pitting students as ‘consumers’, creating increased precarity for academics, and importing aspects of market culture as well as ever-growing strata of top-down management. Whilst many of the new musicological tendencies are advocated by those laying claim to ‘progressive’ political causes, at the same time they have often proved most amenable to the strictures of the commercialised university, not least through the post-modernist eschewal of conceptions of truth and knowledge with a degree of autonomy from their social function, in a capitalist society.*

Contributors to the book consider how his situation has come about, what are some of the ideological assumptions which underlie such a predicament, how this has been manifested in certain types of work, and what might be positive alternatives.

*This point may deserve more explanation than I gave in the introduction. My argument here is essentially that concepts of truth and scholarly autonomy and integrity serve as a brake on attempts to enlist academia in the service of the production of good capitalist functionaries. As such, post-modernists who jettison such things, or the likes of William Cheng and his acolytes (see the arguments of Peter Tregear below), facilitate such a process. It is no coincidence that many of these are strong advocates for heavily commercialised forms of music-making.

 

Larson Powell, ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Professor Powell began by identifying a growth in the field of film music studies in English since the publication of Claudia Gorbman’s Unheard Melodies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), but noted the difficulty in defining the field. He cited David Neumeyer, in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, edited Neumeyer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), on how film music studies are ‘a node between disciplines’ and how scholars ‘have begun to bypass the modes requiring highly specialized musical knowledge and jargon by moving toward sound studies’. Whilst accepting the need for broadening of established musicological methodologies in light of this specific technological context, Powell argued that when links to musicology are loosened, the result is often ‘imprecision and methodological inconsistency’. He cited James Buhler’s discernment (in ‘Ontological, Formal, and Critical Theories of Music and Sound’, in the Oxford Handbook) of three phases in film music theory: (i) the ontological, prior to World War Two; (ii) the methodological, linked to institutionalisation of the discipline, and incorporating structuralism, semiotics and psychoanalysis; and (iii) the ‘field theory’, a looser conglomerate of approaches. Buhler notes that when the term ‘critical theory’ is employed in film music studies, it no longer refers to the hybrid of Marxism and psychoanalysis which characterised the work of the Frankfurt School, but also areas such as poststructuralism, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonialism and race studies, narrative and cultural studies, and so on, without recognising the incompatibility of some of these. Furthermore, the forms of interpretation employed are usually limited to ‘semantic content or associations’, which are notoriously ambiguous.

Powell gave quite a severe critique of Anahid Kassabian’s book Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2000) (for another critique of a different piece of writing by Kassabian, see my contribution here), not least on account of her (mis-)characterisations of the work of Adorno, which he called ‘schoolbook examples of cultural studies misconceptions’. Kassabian claims that Adorno, Stravinsky and Irwin Bazelon ‘all seem to suggest that music is outside of social relations, pure in some fundamental, ontological way’, which Powell found absurd in light of Adorno’s work such as his Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1976; translated by E.B. Ashton from Einleitung in der Musiksoziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1962)). Furthermore, he noted that Kassabian’s ideas of ‘meaning’ were unconstrained by any technical musical engagement, nor by any sociological theory, and amounted to little more than speculation, held up in opposition to a straw-man notion of ‘absolute music’.

Kassabian claims that the relationship between musics and social orders is something that Western society has attempted to repress since the Enlightenment, and in a similar manner, ‘film music constitutes society while being constituted by it’. Powell characterised this as typical of ‘the amateur sociology of cultural studies’ which ‘sees society as an undifferentiated totality’, and uses the simple concept of ‘repression’ to encompass all of the various ‘subsystems of art, economics, morality, politics and law, a central component of theories of modernity’ (I would add that in Marxist terms these constitute key elements of the superstructure). She assumes that her readers share her own prejudices and assumptions, such as that high culture is repressive by its nature, while popular music is an emancipatory force; Powell then demonstrated how some of her claims of ‘our’ identifications with certain music amount to little more than brand recognition, and so ‘scholarship’ becomes little more than registering one’s favourite top 40 tune.

Powell then looked at Emilio Audissino’s Film/Music Analysis: A Film Studies Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), which he finds considerably more edifying than the work of Kassabian, but not without methodological problems. Audissino takes more of a neo-formalist approach (this is a school of film studies heavily indebted to the work of Noël Burch, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson from the early 1980s onwards), and is sceptical towards ‘culturalist analysis’ without ‘some basic grasp and knowledge of the musical art’, though is vague on what the latter might amount to. Audissino rejects a ‘separatist’ view of the visual and aural aspects of a film, presenting as an alternative a view of a film as ‘as an integrated system of elements (say, a soup)’, whereby an analysis should ‘break down the single substance to its single ingredients (tomatoes, salt, oil, etc.)’ Powell was quite amazed by the idea that an integrated system of music and image (like a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) might be seen as a ‘soup’, and in contrast presented the view from Ludwig von Bertalanaffy’s General System Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968):

A system can be defined as a set of elements standing in interrelations.  Interrelation means that elements, p, stand in relations, R, so that the behavior of an element p in R is different from its behavior in another relation, R’.

In a film, a piece of music ‘behaves’ differently to how it would in another film, or a concert hall, argued Powell, but the concept of the system means that its identity is not wholly dissolved in the process, as the metaphor of the soup might imply.

Audissino cites an analysis by Frank Lehman of John Williams’ score to Raiders of the Lost Ark in which a cadence is coordinated with the discovery of the Ark, and is ‘exactly in synch with the sun rays’. But Powell subtly probed the use of the concept of ‘function’ for music in such a context, whereby it implies a teleological view by which a coupling of music and image is required to be ‘effective’ or ‘work’. In contrast to this, Powell suggested that function ought to be a comparison rather than a teleology, and pertinently observed that ‘If one only grasps film music in relation to the image, one cannot imagine what other kinds of music could have been used’. Williams’ music is able to be visually functional by ‘straining the boundaries of tonal functionality’, which Powell compared to the Rückung or harmonic shift identified by Adorno in Schubert or late Beethoven (as discussed in Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006)).

To Powell, Audissino employs a concept of ‘effectiveness’ which is wholly in the ear of the listener, and as such renders a particular acculturated response as something absolute, as does Kassabian when talking about responses to pop music heard on a car radio (which she thinks more ‘natural’ than those experienced in a concert hall). But Powell alluded to a standard practice in film studies of listening to a sequence with the sound turned off and then on, which demonstrates its distinctive role and codes. He maintained that perceived effect (or German Wirkung), while certainly an important consideration, should not be the only one, and called for greater understanding of the craft of writing film scores.

For an alternative approach to the audio-visual relation, Powell looked to semiotics, claiming that this had had relatively little impact upon cultural studies, and differentiating the ‘encoding/decoding’ model bequeathed by Stuart Hall, which Powell felt had more to do with communications theory (I am personally a little unsure about this claim about cultural studies and semiotics in light of the influence of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957; translated Annette Lavers as Mythologies (London, Paladin, 1972)) on the former field, though this could be considered some of Barthes’ loosest and most journalistic work, in comparison to his almost exaggeratedly analytical approach to semiotics elsewhere). Drawing upon Christian Metz’s observation (in The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)) that film language ‘possesses a grammar, up to a point, but no vocabulary’, Powell noted how neither Kassabian nor Audissino ‘clearly define the relation of sound to image‘, instead simply ‘leaping straight from music to larger narrative or cultural signification’. He related this problem back to Gorbman and her argument that ‘musical codes’ are always overridden by ‘cultural’ or ‘cinematic’ codes.

Musical semiotics, however, is a rich and pluralist tradition, often at best combined with rhetoric, hermeneutics or pragmatics, as detailed in Michael Spitzer’s Metaphor and Musical Thought (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis (London: Dent, 1987). Powell drew various theses from this:

(i) it is very hard to pin down a ‘natural’ or unitary correlation between musical signifier and signified, as ‘Music does not simply ‘transmit’ a signal from sender to receiver’. To assume otherwise reflects the biases of communications studies, in departments of which film scholars are often employed.
(ii) this situation comes about because musical signification cannot exist without associated competencies, as argued by music semiotician Eero Tarasti in Signs of Music (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002), and also by Kofi Agawu in the related field of topic theory (Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classical Music (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1991).
(iii) musical signs cannot be analysed in isolation, as the minimal units of meanings are not simply sounds heard in isolation, but utterances. Scott Murphy (in ‘Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music’, in the Oxford Handbook) has shown this for popular film music scores, using neo-Riemannian theory.
(iv) access to what Jean-Jacques Nattiez (in Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, translated Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press, 1990)) calls the ‘musical object’ is not provided by a naïve approach to listening, where the listener hears only what they want to hear. Kassabian and Audissino, in a similar fashion, hear only their own cultural and academic conventions.

Powell advocated recent dissertations by Juan Chattah (‘Semiotics, Pragmatics, and Metaphor in Film Music Analysis’ (Florida State University, 2006)) and Alex Newton (‘Semiotic of Music, Semiotics of Sound, and Film: Toward a Theory of Acousticons’ (University of Texas, 2015)). Newton’s ‘acousticon’ is a new semiotic audiovisual unit, investigated through a combination of musical and visual analysis, while he makes a link to the topic theories of Leonard Ratner, Agawu, and especially Robert Hatten and suggests that film music theory could learn from art-historical iconography and iconology. Powell argued that one might also draw further on Spitzer’s work on musical metaphor and associated scepticism about certain uses of semiotics (when they become ‘a kind of glorified motive-spotting’, like a similar criticism from Nicholas Cook), so as ‘not merely to produce another castle-in-the-sky of system-building that could risk its own problems’.

 

Eva Moreda Rodriguez, ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’

Dr Moreda Rodriguez began by noting how for over 200 years many have been fascinated by the idea of a global history of music, and how in contemporary times this coincided with moves towards internationalisation in many Anglo-Saxon universities who wish to recruit more international students and also, ‘more recently, to develop broader, more diverse, “decolonized” curriculums’. In this context, she proceeded with a critical examination of three attempts at writing such a history: Mark Hijleh, Towards a Global Music History: Intercultural Convergence, Fusion, and Transformation in the Human Musical History (New York: Routledge, 2019); Philip V. Bohlman (ed.), The Cambridge History of World Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and the project ‘Towards a Global Music History’ led by Reinhard Strohm (Oxford University) under the auspices of the Balzan Prize for Musicology.

Moreda Rodriguez also alluded to her own experiences as an ‘international’ academic working at a British university, whose work focuses on her own country of origin, Spain, which is considered somewhat marginal within Western art music. This, she said, had shaped her perceptions of the ‘global’, not least when having to put together grant applications justifying the relevance of her research beyond the community of musicologists working on music in the same time and place. As such, she felt it necessary at least implicitly to engage with the questions underlying these ‘global music history’ projects. Moreda Rodriguez’s principal projects to date have related to music under the Franco regime, which led her towards history and political science, and the national and international nature of fascism; and on the early history of recording technologies, about which she noted that there are many localised non-Anglophone studies, but the more ‘global’ narrative is dominated by US or other English-language sources and issues without acknowledging this.

Hijleh’s book justifies the sole-author narrative by framing itself as a textbook as would be used in a US context, where students take a greater range of foundational, comprehensive courses than in British universities. He also claims that it should be viewed as a gateway for the development of musicianship, in light of which Moreda Rodriguez argued that it should be viewed as a companion to Hijleh’s earlier Towards a Global Music Theory: Practical Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Music across Human Cultures (London: Routledge, 2016). She also noted the extent of Hijelh’s interest in music theory, manifested in investigations of the relative role of melody and harmony in different times and places, or issues of tuning and temperament, as well as the development of ‘global regions’ of influence and prominence at various periods in history. While these two axes suggested very promising results, Moreda Rodriguez felt the book to be let down by omissions and overgeneralizations. For example, he treats the Americas as a whole in the period from 1500 to 1920, but after then ‘the Americas’ becomes exclusively the United States. Also, he neglects the crucial years in the formation of a European canon (also the period which saw increased colonisation) with no mention of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schumann or Schubert, while Hijleh does bring up Jordi Savall and a range of Spanish Renaissance composers, on the grounds of the musical exchanges between Spain and its American colonies in the early modern era. Moreda Rodriguez argued that an equally plausible case could be made for the global reach of Bach, Mozart or Italian opera.

She also hesitantly evoked the concept of ‘music history minus Beethoven’ as recently imagined by Leah Broad, in order to argue for the difficult place where this book is situated, neither wholly a textbook nor a research monograph. It would be unlikely to be of service to first year undergraduates who have only a partial knowledge of some of the musical traditions (though it was not entirely clear why Moreda Rodriguez thought so, though she acknowledge a sensitive tutor could use it productively). Instead, she thought it might have a more polemical aim: specifically to test, in front of other academics, ‘the viability of a single-authored, predominantly narrative music history’. In this, she thought he succeeded to a significant degree.

In contrast with Hijleh, who acknowledges that power in music and power in the real world do not simply mirror one another, Moreda Rodriguez noted how ‘power dynamics and otherness’ are central to the essays in Bohlman’s edited volume, many of which studiously disregard aesthetic and qualitative matters and avoid any engagement with musical detail. As such, the whole history of Western opera (itself undoubtedly something which has had global ramifications, as Moreda Rodriguez pointed out) is simply reduced to a perfunctory mention of its colonial aspects. While the introduction disavows narrative, the chronological ordering of the book – from non-European music during the Antiquity and Medieval Times, through ‘The Enlightenment and world music’s historical turn’, to ‘Music histories of the folk and nation’ – does imply something of the type. Despite various attempts to define ‘world music’, few try to ascertain how this might differ from a global history of music; any such venture is viewed as an academic exercise rather than something which could impact upon the regular work of musicologists. Chapters written from a position of great expertise, such as those of Peter Manuel (‘Musical cultures of mechanical reproduction’) or Bonnie C. Wade (‘Indian music history in the context of global encounters’) are nonetheless both rushed and founded upon too many assumptions to work as introductory texts, but contain too little critical or innovative detail to qualify as research chapters.

Strohm’s project has so far resulted in one edited volume (Strohm (ed.), Studies on a Global History of Music: A Balzan Musicology Project (London: Routledge, 2018)), while two more are in preparation. In his acceptance speech, Strohm expressed his motivation to ‘learn new things on the musical relations between geographical regions and chronological eras’, focusing less on narrative than attempts to ‘explore, through assembled case studies, parameters and terminologies that are suitable to describe a history of many different voices’. As Moreda Rodriguez, noted, at that stage such parameters and terminologies were not yet defined, but the publication and workshops suggest overlaps with the approaches of both Hijleh and Bohlman. She urged, as further outputs are published, investigation of whether these ends have been achieved more efficiently than in existing collections which relate single issues or questions to diverse cultures and contexts, but do not necessarily explore global or transnational issues.

In conclusion, Moreda Rodriguez anticipated the appearance of further such attempts at writing global music history, but also that the search for some ultimate such history will prove elusive. Many of them might reveal less about music history than about ‘the shared assumptions, values and trends embedded in the musicological community at particular moments in time’ as with the contributors to Bohlman’s volume in their ‘attempt to understand world music history under the now-fashionable lens of power dynamics’. As such, such works may be ‘less interesting as product than they are as process’.

 

[To be continued in Part 2]

 


2 Comments on “Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 1. Papers of Larson Powell and Eva Moreda Rodriguez”

  1. […] my earlier post, I detailed the contents of first two papers at the important and well-attended session at the […]

  2. […] to musical education, reports from the roundtable I chaired at the RMA 2019 conference can be found here and here. I have also, with Australian musicologist Peter Tregear, been co-editing a book together […]


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