This blog post was planned earlier this year in response to a very important question placed on social media, by the account known as Experimental Philosophy (@xphilosopher ), which was as follows:
At this moment in time, this issue seems more vivid than ever, and it is one I myself have considered at length during my university career, both when my own politics were more aligned with the radical left and in terms of the social democratic position which I espouse nowadays.
Teaching is not preaching. In the UK, the 1996 Education Act forbids the ‘promotion of partisan political views’ at primary and secondary level. This is sensible when teaching at that level; a corresponding prohibition at tertiary level would inevitably entail a significant loss of autonomy and academic freedom which would be undesirable. Furthermore, students are generally legally adults, and as such it is reasonable to think that they are in more of a position to be able to recognise and critique such views for themselves.
But what about the duty of academics to make all students feel welcome, and able to express their own views without fear or intimidation? Here there is much reason for concern, not least with respect to political bias amongst academics themselves. There is clear evidence that academics identifying with conservative or right-of-centre positions are in a quite small minority. There have been various attempts to refute this, some involving obfuscation, other balanced appraisals (such as this study), suggesting that the situation varies between countries and disciplines, but without denying this is the case in the humanities in particular. As one working in the humanities, and identifying as left-of-centre, this concerns me very much.
I was distressed and angry by the Brexit vote, and continue to believe that this will soon be seen as one of the worst own goals in this country for a very long time. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that not everyone who supported or continues to support Brexit is simply stupid or ignorant (I think they are wrong, but that is not the same). Furthermore, as 52% of the population voted for Brexit, this is sure to include at least some who were students at the time, or their families. For a lecturer in class to brand them stupid and ignorant (the views they express outside of the classroom are their own business) would be grounds for legitimate complaint. I dislike a lot about the form of unbridled capitalism in the United States, as well as the meagreness of welfare provision in that country, the gun culture, the fact that this is the only Western country still to execute its own citizens, or the draconian sentencing policies implemented in many of its regions. I do not believe this amounts to a slur on American citizens in general (anymore than drastic opposition to Putin and the actions of the Russian government and military amounts to a slur on all Russians), whilst recognising that to some extent in a democracy the actions of governmental authorities cannot be divorced from the will of its citizens. But I would never think that teaching is a place to try and preach this to students, some of whom may be from the United States.
Some of the responses to the Twitter post above were encouraging (I won’t link to all the tweets, but one can go and view the thread oneself): some suggested that one should avoid making partisan statements in class, avoid making one’s own political opinion clear (I do not necessarily agree with this, but certainly think it needs to be tempered – see below), or interestingly suggested the teacher can present themselves as the advocate for an argument in a paper, perhaps thus inviting the students to find holes in it. But others epitomised what the post was trying to address – one said that conservative students are ‘threatened by rational thought, scientific evidence, and collective determination of invariant truth’ (which I argued is equally true of many on the left), another branded anyone right-of-centre as ‘racist or intolerant’. One suggested that one should become friendly with conservative colleagues, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Others reasonably asked whether this was not equally an issue for conservative academics teaching left-of-centre students, and this certainly needs to be considered too; I would say (including in my own field) there are more than a few who present themselves as politically ‘progressive’, and assume themselves to be left-of-centre, but their neglect of the economic lead them to become quite aggressive advocates of market forces and consumer culture (see my earlier post here and the end of the post here).
This is a blog post rather than a scholarly article, and does not allow for the type of thoroughgoing research required to ascertain the extent to which political activism and intimidation of students with different political views are major factors within higher education. So here I draw upon personal experience, and knowledge imparted by a wide range of other academics and some students or former students. I am not sure I have always been successful with avoiding some of these factors in my teaching, but over the last decade-and-a-bit have thought and worked harder on this.
- Always ensure that your lecture materials, set readings, and so on, draw attention to plural political and other perspectives on the issues at stake.
- As an extension of 1, make sure you set readings which are not just those with which you personally agree.
- If you wish to inform the students of your own position on certain matters, always emphasise that this is your own, should not be given priority over the views of other scholars, and above all stress that students will never be penalised in their assignments for disagreeing with your position, nor win any special favour for agreeing with it.
- When there is a clear majority of students adhering to a particular view in class discussions, make sure you interject alternative views into this, and present these at their most convincing. Otherwise, students whose views are in the minority may feel afraid of not ‘going with the flow’.
- Avoid asking leading questions (this is a wider academic point) on all occasions. This includes assignments – anything along the lines of ‘Show how various forms of culture or knowledge served to sustain the power of particular groups in society’ should be right out. This should be reframed as a question of whether the forms of culture or knowledge in question served such an end. Also, avoid any type of passive-aggressive language which indicates a ‘right’ position to take or could be viewed as denigrating those who might disagree.
- Never present the work of highly politicised and contested figures – whether Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, or Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall and Edward Said – as if their work represents some type of objective truth. Always draw attention to the critiques which exist of their work.
- As an issue directed towards those of a more right-of-centre persuasion: be aware of how politically loaded some concepts might be (I would include ‘cultural industries’ and ‘creative industries’ in this category, just as much as the Adornian negative conception of the ‘culture industry’). While students will often be working in a capitalist and market-driven world after graduation, that in no way means that education should exclude more critical positions on the marketplace and commercialism. Remember that you are teaching students to be intelligent, mature and independent critical thinkers, not just to adhere to a dominant ideology which you think might serve them well at a later stage.
- Do not appropriate rhetoric about white supremacy simply for the purposes of closing down discussion. This term should not be used lightly, especially not with students. This is no better than using racial epithets against students. Similarly, avoid as far as possible any comparisons with the Nazis unless talking about obvious genuine fascists. Also, be proactive if you see students trying to use similar rhetoric for the same aims.
- Much of the rhetoric about ‘decolonising’ education is toxic; loaded with all sorts of unchallenged assumptions, frequently ahistorical, again used as a means to close down debate and force through a particular political programme, and exploited by particular academic factions in order to bolster their own positions. I have published on the subject here in the context of music here and here; I would also recommend this piece by Patrick Porter, this by James Olsen and this interview with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò for alternative perspectives to the dominant positions within the academic industry on this subject; the article upon leaving academic from Paul Harper-Scott gives a prime example of how this rhetoric is exploited. This does not mean by any means that the subject of possible intersections between culture, knowledge, institutions and colonialism are not a legitimate area for study; far from it. But whether particular intersections exist, and if so their nature, are critical questions, not opportunities for imposing dogma via questionable claims of EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity – see this article by Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa on how bodies dealing with this are often hijacked by activists and political extremists). To be able to engage with such questions, teach students about the history of colonialism (including that from non-European powers) and slavery (likewise), introduce them to culture, thought, from non-Western culture, but allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. To put some non-Western cultural work, social practice or variety of knowledge on a pedestal, as if beyond criticism, is as demeaning and dehumanising to the heterogeneous people and social groups in any such region as anything from a far-right racist.
- Equally pernicious is the argument that ‘everything is political’, used to suggest that one person’s teaching cannot be more ‘politicised’ than another’s. This is aggressive and belligerent rhetoric which could equally be exploited by those on the far right.
- There are not that many subjects which lie outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate – those which involve dehumanisation and denigration of people on the grounds simply of what they were born, or those which involve cynical denial of genocidal events, are amongst the few. Even some for which academics may feel most passionately – about the extent to which a government should allow admission to those seeking to immigrate or claiming asylum, or whether the termination of a pregnancy is purely a matter of a woman’s own body, or whether the unborn child has rights and deserves protection too – elicit multiple views which exist within the boundaries of democratic debate. In some cases this may prove extremely difficult – how to respect, for example, the religious sensibilities of those who have firm views on the place of women, or on homosexuals, which would be beyond the realms of acceptable discourse for many others. Here I do not have a solution other than to argue that tertiary education should be conducted from a secular perspective, and no religion deserves special treatment.
More broadly, the use of teaching as a vehicle for propaganda and political activism should be entirely unacceptable, and students should receive independent advice to become aware of this and be provided with appropriate channels to register their unhappiness about it.
I have found many in academia may pay lip service to ‘critical thinking’, but this is tempered in one of two ways. For many, such critical thinking does not apply to many of the assumptions underlying their own field of work. Numerous ethnomusicologists, in my experience, can be especially wedded to axiomatic assumptions about the relationship between music and its social/cultural context (not to mention frequently treating the works of their own set of canonical thinkers practically as sacred texts). They are of course perfectly entitled to their own views and to express them, but students should not be made to adhere to and avoid critique to such thinking under fear of ostracisation or penalisation of their work. For others, their concept of ‘critical’ means absolute adherence towards a particular political view which they deem ‘critical’. Critiques of the NHS, of trade unions, of factions within the left, of antisemitic ideologies in the same place, can be just as ‘critical’ as those of capitalist institutions, the military, the monarchy or the church (and I say this as a dedicated trade unionist, with huge pride in the NHS, also very sceptical of the monarchy, many churches, and certainly of unregulated power given to the forces of capital).
There are of course limits – it would be foolish to think that a position advocating slavery, or expressing support for Nazism or Stalinism, should be treated just like any other political position. But even in these cases there is much more to education than simply telling students how bad these things are. There are many questions relating to the workings of the Western slave trade, the extent of complicity or active involvement of many in various fields of life, the extent to which assent towards this was dominant within political discourse or the extent to which it engendered significant opposition, and the sensitive issue of active complicity of some members of the societies from which slaves were taken (just as Holocaust scholar Raoul Hillberg encountered great controversy when investigating the involvement of some Jewish organisations in facilitating the machinery of genocide, now a perspective accepted by a wide range of historians). Nazism, wider fascism and the Third Reich form parts of my own research areas; I see how important it is in education to consider historical conceptions of fascism (far from the crude way the term is often bandied about nowadays), but also consider not just the extent to which it formed/forms a continuity with the pre- and post-fascist histories of the societies in question, to what extent there was popular approval for the movement (equally a question for Stalinism), including during the times of the worst atrocities, and how and why this might have been true, if there was indeed considerable support (the extent continues to divide historians, especially in the wake of the work of Daniel Goldhagen). I have taught a module entitled Music, Fascism, Communism for over a decade. In this, I frequently show students a section from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), focused around a Nuremberg Rally, presenting the Führer almost like an angel sent from on high, and with mesmerising choreographed scenes of sacralised, ritualistic displays of militaristic power. It would be easy just to tell students why this is so terrible; but actually I would like them to consider what it was about these types of spectacles (if indeed they did resemble Riefenstahl’s portrayals, which is a big ‘if’) might have proved so compelling, and by extension consider how cultural forms (I often juxtapose the Riefenstahl with some choreographed scenes from Busby Berkeley – others have commented on the similarities, and Riefenstahl herself acknowledged the influence of Berkeley) can operate upon the spectator (and listener) in such an atavistic manner, appealing in a purely sensuous and emotive manner, not to rational and critical faculties, and how this strategy has proved as effective in steering consumer habits as in bolstering emotional identification with fascism – though of course also registering dissenting views towards this interpretation. This is about attempting to encourage wider critical analysis of the phenomena in question and related ones, not simply to bolster support for a viewpoint with which no reasonable person would disagree (that Nazism was a disastrous and genocidal movement). Knowledge of Stalinism or more widely of documented atrocities under actually-existing communism seems to become thinner with every year that passes since the end of the Cold War; it is vital that students are aware of what has been documented beyond reasonable doubt, but there remain many different interpretations to explore, concerning such issues as whether Stalinism and its counterparts elsewhere were an inevitable consequence of any type of social upheaval following the principles laid down by Marx and Engels, or whether it was a distortion of these and this historical trajectory could have been avoided, the role of personalities such as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and many others, and in a cultural context whether there was any necessary connection between this type of politics and radical artistic movements (see my latest piece in The Spectator for some thoughts on this).
At one institution where I once did some teaching, I found that one student with whom I was working was a supporter of the British National Party. However, so long as this did not lead to the expression of overtly racist views in front of others, I did not see any reason for this to affect things. In another somewhat less loaded case, when teaching about performing some music explicitly linked to a specific left-wing political programme, with associated texts alluding to global events, I realise that some students there who had grown up in Eastern European countries under communism were uncomfortable with any suggestion that one should share the view of the composer in question, so I tried to adapt teaching from then onwards to make clear this needn’t be the case. I have also (briefly) taught a student who went on to become a Brexit Party MP; I have no idea what they think about my teaching, but hope at least that it didn’t make them feel politically excluded.
But let me end with an inspiring example from the past: the case of Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed. Miliband was born to a Jewish refugee parents from Poland, who had settled in Belgium, and in turn had to flee the country to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis and their Belgian allies. Miliband was a major political theorist who taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Leeds, and various US institutions. His positions were associated with particular factions of the Marxist left (and he had little time for the idea that change could be achieved through the Labour Party), unlike both of his sons, though this fact was used to discredit Ed Miliband in particular by association in pernicious journalism in the Daily Mail, calling the elder Miliband ‘The man who hated Britain’. But one who defended Miliband most strongly was Lord Moore, formerly John Moore, known in the 1980s as a right-wing member of Thatcher’s cabinet (associated in particular with major cuts to social security). Beyond defending Miliband against the charge that he hated Britain, he recalled studying under Miliband at the London School of Economics, where Moore was a student in the late 1950s:
Ralph Miliband taught me and I can say he was one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had. Of course, we had different political opinions but he never treated me with anything less than complete courtesy and I had profound respect for his integrity.
I cannot imagine any stronger tribute to the fairness of one’s teaching than to have such a testimony from someone at the other end of the political spectrum, nor more worthy aim for academics than to be as fair and balanced to one’s own students as Miliband was to his.
Last week I attended the debate ‘How can universities promote academic freedom? Insights from the front line of the gender wars’, at University College London’s Institute of Education. This was a stimulating and thoughtful event, organised in conjunction with the publication of a booklet of the same name by philosopher Professor Judith Suissa and sociologist Professor Alice Sullivan (both from UCL) (free to download). Suissa and Sullivan gave short introductions then responses to the booklet came from Baroness Estelle Morris (former Labour Secretary of State for Education), Professor David Ruebain (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at the University of Sussex), Professor Arif Ahmed (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge) (Akua Reindorf was unable to be present). With a debate focused upon the issues of biological sex against gender, it would be hard to deny that the panel was dominated by those believing that the former is not simply subsumed within the latter, though I gather various proponents of the primacy of gender and/or trans individuals (the lack of which was noted by Ruebain) were invited but declined to participate. The discussion centered around the evidence and arguments in the booklet for concerted attempts to silence, no-platform and ostracise ‘gender-critical’ scholars, a phenomenon also identified in a recent Times Higher Education Supplement article by early career scholar Laura Favaro (also available at this link), based upon interviews with 50 academics involved with gender studies. Favaro found many examples of a culture of fear, self-censorship, gatekeeping within journals and academic networks, and a total lack of frank and open discussion on what are undoubtedly contested areas. Various panellists and members of the packed audience at the event related similar experiences. What I have not seen is gender-critical feminists attempting to have their opponents censored, no-platformed, or hounded from their positions, though some have naturally responded very negatively to highly abusive comments towards the former, sometimes advocating sexual or other violence.
Morris argued that the disputes relating to sex and gender were about ideology versus evidence-based reasoning. Sullivan argued that some university Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) organisations can be and have been infiltrated by those from activist groups with extremist views. Ahmed, who paid tribute to Suissa and Sullivan, recognising the concerted hostility they will have faced, also noted other areas of intolerance, such as a tendency to brand anyone in a university who was or is a supporter of Brexit as a bigot. Despite being a 200% Remainer myself, I would be hard-pressed to disagree that this is the case, and can see how much of a problem it is. Ruebain was the one panellist giving a somewhat different view, arguing that we need to understand the contexts in which contested examples of academic freedom occur, and also suggesting that the issues here are so intensely personal and emotionally felt by many that it is hard to subject them to the usual processes of academic critique. This may be the case, but personal feelings do not seem to be a concern for those engaged in quite vicious and abusive hate campaigns against those associated with gender-critical views, often trying to force them out of their job, as occurred with philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex, after facing a huge mobbing campaign from by students and colleagues. Ruebain also compared current debates with the fervent disputes between second-wave feminists and disability activists in the 1980s over such issues as abortion rights. One questioner argued that the situation depended a lot on the institution at which one was based, noting that UCL’s record on defending academic freedom and staff was exemplary, but the situation was rather different at the Universities of Birmingham or Sussex. A somewhat more ambivalent account of the debate was published by Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe.
Academic freedom is in my view an utterly essential component of university life, a non-negotiable prerequisite of scholarly rigour and integrity. I nonetheless find it disappointing to find that there are more than a few academics, including some in senior positions, who have a rather dismissive view of the whole concept. In part I believe this is relates to one of the most troubling recent phenomena in academia, its infiltration by activists, uninterested in any scholarly knowledge other than that which bolsters their a priori positions, who attempt to recruit in their own image, limit curricula and teaching materials to those things which concur with their activist beliefs, and can act shockingly towards other scholars or students who dare to disagree (more to follow on fair engagement with students of multiple political perspectives in a subsequent blog post). Also at stake is the legacy of postmodernism, sometimes imagined now to be a dated movement of the 1980s and 1990s which no longer carries any sway, but some of the aspects of which, in particular extreme relativisation of concepts of ‘truth’ (often in opposition to straw man characterisations of positions supposedly insisting on 100% objectivity), and the somewhat later dissolution of scholarship into politics, continue to be major presences on the academic landscape.
Stock has written of her memories of pugilistic debate from faculty members (mostly men) with visiting speakers from when she was a Masters philosophy student, which seemed frightening at the time and designed to humiliate the speakers. But for all the problems with this (and it is certainly possible to conduct robust debate in a more civilised fashion), she believes that what came later was worse. Stock observed an exaggerated synthetic ‘niceness’ in debates, but combined with unctuous name-dropping, endless rules around debate, rather arcane rituals for raising hands and fingers, and often banal questions. This did not however remove the aggression, but simply directed it elsewhere. In the absence of proper open debate, many would revert to surreptitious means to undermine others, through mass denunciations on social media, many ad hominem attacks, complaints, hidden campaigns, and so on. As so often, those enforcing an agenda ostensibly about ‘kindness’ could be amongst the most vicious in trying to silence those who disagree with them on anything. One professor has even described debate per se as ‘an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.’
Suissa and Sullivan (whose excellent booklet I will not describe in detail here, as I would prefer that people read it themselves) find ample evidence of both students and academics attempting to suppress free speech and academic freedom, and make various key recommendations. These include the maintenance of the university as a pluralistic space which welcomes diverse views, avoiding official ideological viewpoints on behalf of institutions and the use of political lobby groups in shaping policy or providing training, and while recognising that activist networks have a place in academia, they must be independent of the university administration. They also advocate education of staff and students on academic freedom and the value of productive disagreement, including its legal and philosophical bases, the promotion of academic freedom alongside equality, including the appointment of a champion for academic freedom within the senior leadership team, further promotion of collegiality (sometimes a misused term taken to signify concurrence with a dominant ideology or promotion of a collective ‘brand’ – see below) and tackling harassment, providing security of tenure, signalling institutional support for academic freedom, and defence of the pursuit of truth. An article on the booklet, in particular the need for appointment of champions of academic freedom, can be read here.
What does ‘academic freedom’ mean? Many at the debate agreed that it was a different concept to ‘free speech’, though the two do overlap. In a paper I gave in ‘Musicology and Academic Freedom’ at the Music and the University Conference at City, University of London in July, I enlisted several definitions which I wanted to share here as well as some other arguments made in this paper. Whilst the concept can be dated back many centuries, it is generally accepted that the moder definition has its roots in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and the founding of the Berlin Universität in 1810. Humboldt published an essay entitled ‘Über die innere und äussere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten zu Berlin’ (1809-10), which has been translated as ‘On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin’, Minerva, vol. 8, no. 2 (April 1970), pp. 242-250. The following are amongst the most pertinent passages:
Since these institutions [universities] can only fulfil their purposes when each of them bears continuously in mind the pure idea of science and scholarship [these two terms are used to translate Wissenschaft], their dominant principles must be freedom and the absence of distraction (Einsamkeit).
At the higher level, the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student; both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher’s performance depends on the students’ presence and interest – without this science and scholarship could not grow. If the students who are to form his audience did not come before him of their own free will, he, in his quest for knowledge, would have to seek them out. The goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions.
The state must always remain conscious of the fact that it never has and in principle never can, by its own action, bring about the fruitfulness of intellectual activity. It must indeed be aware that it can only have a prejudicial influence if it intervenes. The state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better if it does not intrude.
Now as regards the organisational and material side of the relationship of the institution to the state, the only concerns of the latter must be profusion (in the sense of mental power and variety) of intellectual talents to be brought together in the institution. This can be achieved through care in the selection of persons and the assurance of freedom in their intellectual activities. This intellectual freedom can be threatened not only by the state, but also by the intellectual institutions themselves which tend to develop, at their birth, a certain outlook and which will therefore readily resist the emergence of another outlook. The state must seek to avert the harm which can possibly arise from this source.
The heart of the matter is the appointment of the persons who are to do the intellectual work.
The state must not deal with its universities as Gymnasia or as specialised technical schools; it must not use its academy as if it were a technical or scientific commission. It must in general – with certain exceptions among the universities which will be considered later – demand nothing from them simply for the satisfaction of its own needs. It should instead adhere to a deep conviction that if the universities attain their highest ends, they will also realise the state’s ends too, and these on a far higher plane. On this higher plane, more is comprehended and forces and mechanisms are brought into action which are quite different from those which the state can command.
The young person, on entry into university, should be released from the compulsion to enter either into a state of idleness or into practical life, and should be enabled to aspire to and elevate himself to the cultivation of science or scholarship which hitherto have only been pointed out to him from afar.
The way thereto is simple and sure. The aim of the schools must be the harmonious development of all the capacities of their pupils. Their powers must be focused on the smallest possible number of subject- matters but every aspect of these must be dealt with to as great an extent as possible. Knowledge should be so implanted in the mind of the pupil that understanding, knowledge and creativity excite it, not through any external features, but through their inner precision, harmony and beauty. [. . . ] A mind which has been trained in this way will spontaneously aspire to science and scholarship.
Humboldt’s writings should be read in the context of the traditional German division between universities on one hand and academies of the sciences and arts on the other. He definitely favoured the former, and suggested that the latter have only really flourished where there are few universities. Academies had less strict requirements for selection of staff, compared to the habilitation required in a German university. Humboldt also believed the state should take exclusive control of appointments, rather than faculties:
Although disagreements and disputes within a university are wholesome and necessary, conflicts which might arise between teachers because of their specialised intellectual interests might unwittingly affect their viewpoints.
This important point is at odds with common processes for selection in the UK today.
From Humboldt’s ideas came the twin concepts of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn), as subsets of Wissenschaftsfreiheit or Akademische Freiheit. These concepts developed through the course of the nineteenth century.
Another hugely important intervention in the development of the concept came from philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, in his lectures delivered at Cambridge, MA in 1898 (collected in the 1992 Harvard University Press volume Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898), in particular that entitled ‘The First Rule of Logic’, in which he compared the situation in American universities deeply unfavourably with their German counterparts in terms of free intellectual inquiry and in particular the link between this and teaching:
…inquiry of every type, fully carried out, has the vital power of self-correction and of growth. This is a property so deeply saturating its inmost nature that it may truly be said that there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true. If you really want to learn the truth, you will, by however devious a path, be surely led into the way of truth, at last. No matter how erroneous your ideas of the method may be at first, you will be forced at length to correct them so long as your activity is moved by that sincere desire. Nay, no matter if you only half desire it, at first, that desire would at length conquer all others could experience continue long enough. But the more voraciously truth is desired at the outset, the shorter by centuries will the road to it be.
In order to demonstrate that this is so, it is necessary to note what is essentially involved in The Will to Learn. The first thing that the Will to Learn supposes is a dissatisfaction with one’s present state of opinion. There lies the secret of why it is that our American Universities are so miserably insignificant. What have they done for the advance of civilization? What is the great idea or where is [a] single great man who can truly be said to be the product of an American University? The English universities, rotting with sloth as they always have, have nevertheless in the past given birth to Locke and to Newton, and in our time to Cayley, Sylvester and Clifford. The German universities have been the light of the whole world. The medieval University of Bologna gave Europe its system of law. The University of Paris, and that despised Scholasticism took Abelard and made him into Descartes. The reason was that they were institutions of learning while ours are institutions for teaching. In order that a man’s whole heart may be in teaching he must be thoroughly imbued with the vital importance and absolute truth of what he has to teach; while in order that he may have any measure of success in learning he must be penetrated with a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of his present condition of knowledge. The two attitudes are almost irreconcilable.
A range of statements followed from the American Association of University Professors, of which the most important is the ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’, which was and is endorsed by a wide range of US institutions:
- Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
- Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject [my emphasis]. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
- College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
The idea of limitations on academic freedom with deference to religious or other related principles now seems archaic in the modern secular university, but is understandable in the context of its time. What exactly is entailed by the phrase ‘respect for the opinions of others’ is open to much interpretation (certainly it is hard to see how this is true of those who regularly brand their opponents fascists, communists, colonialists, white supremacists, and so on), but there can be proper arenas and frameworks for this, through scholarly forums and the like, in which any aspect of someone’s arguments can be rigorously debated so long as this does not trespass into the realms of personalised attacks on an ad hominem basis, invoking factors irrelevant to the work. Most arguments, within reason, should be allowed a fair hearing but so should challenges to such arguments. To separate individual from work is harder than ever, however, in a time of intense subjectivity in scholarship, in which some make their case essentially on the basis of who they are and the experiences they have had, rather than the cogency of their arguments, as identified in William Matthews recent article for the THES.
In the UK, the most significant definition of academic freedom in recent times came about in the 1988 Education Reform Act, specifically in the so-called ‘Hillhead amendment’, named after Lord [Roy] Jenkins of Hillhead, which appeared within Section 202. This concerned the appointment of a body of University Commissioners (following the abolition of tenure), who would have various tasks:
to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions;
Similar principles, presented in a more elaborate fashion, can be found in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel:
III. 4: Institutions of higher education, and more particularly universities, are communities of scholars preserving, disseminating and expressing freely their opinions on traditional knowledge and culture, and pursuing new knowledge without constriction by prescribed doctrines. The pursuit of new knowledge and its application lie at the heart of the mandate of such institutions of higher education. In higher education institutions where original research is not required, higher-education teaching personnel should maintain and develop knowledge of their subject through scholarship and improved pedagogical skills.
VI. 26: Higher-education teaching personnel, like all other groups and individuals, should enjoy those internationally recognized civil, political, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. Therefore, all higher-education teaching personnel should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement. They should not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education. They should not suffer any penalties simply because of the exercise of such rights. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention, nor to torture, nor to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In cases of gross violation of their rights, higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to appeal to the relevant national, regional or international bodies such as the agencies of the United Nations, and organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel should extend full support in such cases.
VI. 27: The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society.
VI. 28: Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use curricula and methods contrary to national and international human rights standards. Higher-education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.
VI. 29: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to carry out research work without any interference, or any suppression, in accordance with their professional responsibility and subject to nationally and internationally recognized professional principles of intellectual rigour, scientific inquiry and research ethics. They should also have the right to publish and communicate the conclusions of the research of which they are authors or co-authors, as stated in paragraph 12 of this Recommendation.
VI. 30: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to undertake professional activities outside of their employment, particularly those that enhance their professional skills or allow for the application of knowledge to the problems of the community, provided such activities do not interfere with their primary commitments to their home institutions in accordance with institutional policies and regulations or national laws and practice where they exist.
The UK 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (which came in the wake of a wide range of changes to Higher Education from 2010 onwards and established the Office for Students, superseding the earlier Higher Education Funding Council for England and Office for Fair Access), contained relevant material on academic freedom in Section 2(8):
In this Part, “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means—
(a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way,
(b) the freedom of English higher education providers—
(i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
(ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers—
(i) to question and test received wisdom, and
(ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions,
without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.
For wider reasons beyond the scope of this article (but which will appear in a piece to be published in the THES in the week beginning 3 October), I do question some aspects of complete autonomy of higher education providers, which I do not believe has ever been wholly meaningful in light of wider bodies dedicated to the maintenance of standards (until recently by the Quality Assurance Agency). Furthermore staff deserve wider protection in terms of selection, appointment and dismissal practices, through employment laws which exceed the priorities of individual providers. Nonetheless, sections (a) and (c) are sound bases for the conducting of academic work.
In 2020, The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group produced a document entitled ‘Model Code of Conduct for the Protection of Academic Freedom and the Academic Community in the Context of the Internationalisation of the UK Higher Education Sector’. Whilst recognising the difficulties inherent in defining academic freedom satisfactorily, this group emphasise the following freedoms, drawing upon the 1988, 1997 and 2017 provisions:
- teach, discuss, assess, define the curriculum and study within their areas of academic expertise and/or inquiry;
- promote and engage in academic thinking, debate and inquiry;
- carry out research, and publish the results and make them known;
- freely express opinions about the academic institution or system in which they work or study;
- participate in professional or representative academic bodies;
- not be censored; and,
- fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression.
These should not supplant the earlier definitions, but can be combined with them to demonstrate the priorities, and this provides a good basis for formulating working definitions.
Finally, the 2021 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill (based on the white paper ‘Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom‘) from the UK Department of Education, still going through Parliament, lists the following duties for Higher Education Providers (HEPs):
A1 Duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech
(1) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (2).
(2) That objective is securing freedom of speech within the law for—
(a) staff of the provider,
(b) members of the provider,
(c) students of the provider, and
(d) visiting speakers.
(3) The objective in subsection (2) includes securing that—
(a) the use of any premises of the provider is not denied to any individual or body on grounds specified in subsection (4), and
(b) the terms on which such premises are provided are not to any extent based on such grounds.
(4) The grounds referred to in subsection (3)(a) and (b) are—
(a) in relation to an individual, their ideas, beliefs or views;
(b) in relation to a body, its policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members.
(5) The objective in subsection (2), so far as relating to academic staff, includes securing their academic freedom.
(6) In this Part, “academic freedom”, in relation to academic staff at a registered higher education provider, means their freedom within the law—
(a) to question and test received wisdom, and
(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves at risk of being adversely affected in any of the ways described in subsection (7).
(7) Those ways are—
(a) loss of their jobs or privileges at the provider;
(b) the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced.
(8) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (9).
(9) That objective is securing that, where a person applies to become a member of academic staff of the provider, the person is not adversely affected in relation to the application because they have exercised their freedom within the law to do the things referred to in subsection (6)(a) and (b).
(10) In order to achieve the objective in subsection (2), the governing body of a registered higher education provider must secure that, apart from in exceptional circumstances, use of its premises by any individual or body is not on terms that require the individual or body to bear some or all of the costs of security relating to their use of the premises.
(11) In this Part—
references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences;
“registered higher education provider” and “governing body”, in relation to such a provider, have the same meanings as in Part 1 of this Act
A3 Duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom
The governing body of a registered higher education provider must promote the importance of—
(a) freedom of speech within the law, and
(b) academic freedom for academic staff of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions,
in the provision of higher education.
The bill goes on to list responsibilities for students unions, governing bodies and the Office for Students in these respects and in particular the creation of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to monitor that such commitments on the part of HEPs are upheld.
While the bill is certainly not without problems, and may undergo further amendment before becoming law, I do believe overall it is a step forward. Those on the left who are committed to free speech and academic freedom should be prepared to concede some value in a piece of legislation introduced by a Conservative government.
Risks to Academic Freedom
In my own field of music/musicology, various recent events have highlighted issues of academic freedom. One is the affair known as ‘Schenkergate’, relating to the publication of a special issue of The Journal of Schenkerian Studies in 2020 in reference to the article by Philip A. Ewell, ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, Music Theory, vol. 26, no. 2 (September 2020). The controversy related in particular to an article by Schenker scholar Dr Timothy Jackson, making arguments about the prevalence of anti-semitism amongst African-Americans, and also arguing that the lack of involvement of African-Americans in music theory had much to do with the low incidence of classical music in the common upbringing of members of this community. Jackson found himself removed from the editorship of the journal as a result. He contested this in court and a Judge determined that this may violate his First Amendment rights. Prior to this, Jackson responded with an article for Quillette (‘The Schenker Controversy’, 20 December 2021) arguing for many fallacies in Ewell’s argument and reasoning.
The second affair was the resignation from a chair in musicology at Royal Holloway in the summer of 2021 of Professor J.P.E. Harper-Scott (who I will refer to as ‘Paul’, as that is how all who know him address him), about which I blogged earlier. Paul published an article online about his reasons for leaving academia, which included the following:
Without direct experience of academics until I went (as the first of my family) to university, I naively imagined them to be how they were presented in novels and TV programmes: sometimes quite bumbling and unworldly, but always committed to the pursuit of truth, never trusting in a commonplace ‘fact’ without subjecting it to the most serious sceptical scrutiny. This did not turn out to be true.
[…] It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.
[….] I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic.
This was followed by an example of a statement on the need to ‘decolonise’ the classical musical canon (on which subject I published an article in The Critic in July of this year), which was an example of what Harper-Scott deemed dogmatic, with a suggested alternative which he felt was more in the spirit of critical scholarly inquiry.
I share many of Paul’s concerns, and am also concerned with the trajectory of events relating to Schenkergate. But these relate to what I perceive as a range of factors which serve to limit and condition academic freedom in academia. So I offer the following list of these, some of which would concern those on the left, some those on the right, but all of which I think should concern anyone for whom academic freedom, defined more or less in the ways above, is a defining aspect of a university.
External Pressures from Industries and Institutions
I wrote more extensively about this subject in earlier blog posts here and here, but wish to emphasise (in line with the arguments in the later blog post), that in no sense should this be taken to imply that I oppose external engagement. I am referring to the situation whereby academics enter into partnerships with external institutions and bodies, which may be commercial, state-supported or partially state-supported. These partnerships may relate to research, teaching or both. In particular, I have in mind the situation in which the external institutions provide some financial support for these activities. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there may also be no such thing as a free teaching or research grant. For such institutions to ask that their finance or other support entail concentration on certain areas is fair and to be expected. But what if the results are not necessarily what the external body wishes to hear?
The point may be made most clearly through reference to wider examples. Suppose that some major manufacturing corporation sponsors some research into the effects of particular types of manufacturing upon the environment. Perhaps the researchers in question may find their work leads them to the inexorable conclusion that this specific corporation are responsible for a range of environmentally damaging actions in the course of their regular activities, contrary to their own promotional material which argues that they are an environmentally-friendly corporation, also drawing attention to the fact that they sponsor this research in order to bolster such a thing. If the researchers felt under pressure to artificially modify or not publish their findings, for fear of not upsetting the corporation, this would in my view severely compromise academic freedom and integrity.
There needs to be some commonly agreed set of principles which become a basic prerequisite for academics entering into some partnership with an external institution, whereby they are free to follow where their research leads them without fear of the institution blocking their access or terminating the partnership prematurely, and also so that future partnerships will not discriminate against those who may have written critically about the institution in the past.
The Complex Relationship between Research and External Practice
This relates to concerns explored in some depth in the conference on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’ at the University of Surrey in 2017, organised by Christopher Wiley and myself, and features both in the 2020 Palgrave Macmillan, volume we edited, Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists: Challenges, Practices and Complexities, while in a specifically musical context will feature in our forthcoming Routledge volume Writing about Contemporary Musicians: Promotion, Advocacy, Disinterest, Censure. This subject is also discussed at more length in the two earlier blog posts linked to in the previous section.
What happens when academics are dealing with living or recently living practitioners or their estates – writers, composers, artists, directors of institutions, critics, promoters, and so on? Or if they have strong external connections with some of these people beyond academia? How free can they feel to write and research these independently, at least considering perspectives on them and their work which may not necessarily coincide with their own self-presentation, that of their publishers, and so on?
Is the role of academics to be ‘advocates’ for these figures, or is it the case, as I believe, that a too-strong application of this principle (as opposed to simply researching things to which one is sympathetic, which is a different matter) can easily result in hagiographic treatment? How do academics maintain critical independence without the fear of being frozen out of some of these people’s circles, their materials, and so on (a situation I know various scholars have experienced)? I have certainly felt the pressure when writing about a range of living composers whose work I also play, and to some extent upon whom I rely upon for some good favour, writing new works for me, recommending me to festivals to play their work, and so on. I am still unsure about the feasibility of reconciling this with being a critical scholar.
One of the factors afflicting a fair amount of writing on new music, in my view, is a failure to consider this. As I have written about in the case of various such writings, a position of defensive advocacy, coupled to attempts to pathologise any who disagree with a 100% favourable view, leads to something more akin to promotional material than more sober scholarly work.
There are of course also plenty of practitioners themselves active within academic arts departments. Whilst some are engaged in the type of more dispassionate scholarship characteristic of the humanities – and I would like to count myself in that category – in other cases the work is of a different nature, framing practice in terms of research questions and context, with the use of verbal material essentially to articulate the ways in which it qualifies ‘as research’. Artistic practitioners frequently have external careers, working in an alternative economy in which critical thinking is by no means necessarily respected or admired. Sometimes simply saying the right thing to the right people, those in positions of power able to do favours, and not questioning all sorts of dominant ideologies operative in these circles, is a much better bet than asking more difficult questions. This can lead to a situation which I conceive as ‘two cultures’ of scholars and practitioners in terms of the attitude and approaches they take.
These issues do, for sure, also apply to those who, as I do, seek to write in non-academic arenas about the arts (or other disciplines), for various reasons, not least because of the differing role that value judgement might play therein. But I think it is possible to differentiate between academic and other writing and not confuse the two. It is less clear where the distinction lies with non-written forms of practice.
Top-down demands by institutions.
In any institutions with a degree of central control of teaching and research, individual academics may find themselves in conflict with the explicit demands or requirements of their department, school, or whole university. Some may try to specify the contents of curricula, or require academics to fashion teaching in general towards generalised criteria of employability. In other cases, support and internal funding for research may rely upon its falling within certain areas, which may be fair enough, but could also require the employment of certain methods which themselves might be more likely to produce certain types of results. These factors might affect the extent, for example, to which teaching can realistically focus on critical perspectives upon the industries or institutions for which students might be looking to work, to link to the first point.
Elsewhere, policies relating to diversity or ‘decolonisation’ might dictate choices or approaches to their teaching, at worst precluding critical treatment of certain types of subjects, and conversely requiring only negative or pejorative attitudes towards others. It is notable in my experience that some who are ferociously defensive of their independence in other contexts can also be supportive of top-down policies in these respects.
But I believe it is important to maintain independence right down to singular academics when it comes to precisely how they conduct their teaching and research. It is fair that departments need to require that certain things are taught as part of a programme, and that certain knowledge and skills are imparted, but the approach to so doing should be left to the individual academic as far as possible. In this respect I have a lot of sympathy with the 2021 Higher Education Bill.
This said, as I will argue in next week’s THES, I do believe that there is a requirement for provision of certain core subjects to a recognised level in all regionalities of the country (not least to facilitate ‘commuter students’, not wishing to incur huge amounts of debt through moving away from home to study), and in this article will advocate some type of tertiary ‘national curriculum’, a more rigorous form of the types of subject benchmarks previously provided by the QAA. Nonetheless, it should still be possible to maintain freedom of individual academics within a framework of encouraging pluralistic perspectives and debate.
Different academics, sometimes of very different or opposing views, work together in departments. A further concern in terms of academic freedom has to do with pressures to conform with prevailing orthodoxies within a department, not questioning these or colleagues who propagate them, so as to maintain a consistent ‘brand’ for a department which is competing with others for students.
Sometimes the term employed here to put pressures on individual academics is ‘collegiality’, understood as working within a set of parameters, not markedly questioning them in ways which are incompatible with a group view. But this is not consistent with what I think is a decent definition provided in the UNESCO 1997 document:
UNESCO 1997, VI. 32: The principles of collegiality include academic freedom, shared responsibility, the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large.
All of this is entirely compatible with permitting academics to work without feeling pressure to conform or fashion their work in line with some ‘majority view’ in their department, and I think this is also essential.
Need to concentrate work in particular fields.
Securing academic jobs depends a good deal on one’s particular field and the job opportunities available. In the UK, fewer than 20% of students take traditional BMus or BA courses with a humanities approach which includes historical, analytical, critical and other types of musicology. The remainder take courses in musical theatre, music technology, popular music to a lesser extent, and certain types of musical performance, all of which are primarily vocationally oriented. As a result, the openings for historical musicologists (especially those working on early music), music analysts, and indeed ethnomusicologists working on the non-Western world are limited. Even those already holding university positions can come under pressure to shift in certain directions in light of changing provision, and some have encountered redundancies as a result. To link to a point made earlier, in some contexts a more critical view of the music industry, compared to some presentations of it as a model of diversity and inclusivity, may create problems for the individual academics if they are seeking work in institutions wedded to such a view.
Here I would look back to the Humboldt model and make what now seems a radical suggestion, which is that appointments should be administered centrally by the state rather than individual institutions, so as to ensure a fair distribution and representation of plural areas of teaching and research. Individual departments may recruit ‘in their own image’, and this can have the effect of shutting out openings for academics who once again do not fit with the dominant ‘brand’.
Here I have in mind the view put forward by William Cheng, in his 2016 book Just Vibrations, which has received positive endorsement from a range of leading musicologists (see for example here and here), though others have written very critically about this (see also here). Cheng is dismissive of academic freedom and even of ‘the belief that academics have a right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination’. In place of this he advocates a musicology which he says ‘upholds interpersonal care as a core feature’. This is hardly compatible with Cheng’s own dismissive remarks about other musicologists and musicology, but is part of a certain view, usually linked to the term ‘social justice’, seemingly innocuous, but which in reality requires that researchers comply with an unyielding political agenda and fashion their work towards this. A recent position advertised at the University of Southampton Music Department which included ‘social justice’ in the job title. I do not see the difference between this and advertising a position in ‘Music and Support for Jeremy Corbyn’, ‘Musicology and Brexit Advocacy’, and so on – it appears entirely unreasonable and a constraint on academic freedom to specify a specific political outlook in a job description, and this should be investigated in terms of employment law. The view of Cheng and others reminds me strongly of the dictates in various undemocratic countries, in which academics and artists found themselves under strong pressure to propagate particular political ideologies, or find themselves facing censure, termination or worse. This should be utterly unacceptable to anyone concerned about academic freedom.
A new study conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Nick Hillman, ‘“You can’t say that!” What students really think of free speech on campus’ (June 2022)) suggests that very significant numbers of UK students prioritise what they regard as demands for safety and protection from discrimination over free speech, wish to place issues such as sexism and racism outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate, would limit expression of views which offend certain religious groups, and so on.
We hear in many places about the vital role of students as ‘consumers’ who make the activities of universities possible, definitively placing teaching rather than research at the centre of their activities. The pressure on institutions to respond to demands from these ‘consumers’ can be intense, and it is by no means guaranteed that they will always act to protect the freedoms of academics in the face of student pressure.
Here I think we do need statutory measures implemented and enforced by the state, and also welcome some of the proposals in the 2021 act for this reason. For students to be able to hound out academics because they do not like some of what they have to say (as opposed to illegal activity or other things which transgress the inevitable constraints on free speech which need to be enforced by law) is to produce a culture more reminiscent of Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.
While formal disciplinary mechanisms precluding academic freedom in the Western world may not be that extensive, there are other pressures which can lead to self-censorship. These include increasingly precarious employment. In the UK there is no tenure system, and – as we are witnessing in other areas of the arts and humanities at present – academics can find themselves dispensable.
Some on the left often advocate for silencing of those they deem racist, transphobic, etc., but are highly defensive when others are accused of anti-semitism (or when those associated with genderist politics are accused of misogyny). Some on the right focus on anti-semitism (which ought to be an issue for those of all political persuasions) or advocacy of views they associate with terrorism, but are more defensive with respect to other things. I believe that only in very blatant and explicit cases should any of these be used as a justification for limiting academic freedom. Anti-Zionists and gender-critical feminists should not feel that their view is illegitimate in academia.
Critical subjects should remain a presence in all universities. All academics must be free to follow where their research and convictions take them, even if their conclusions are not what their institutions, external partners, or colleagues want to hear. To fashion one’s work according to the demands of any of these is another fundamental betrayal of academic freedom.
Over a long period, I have repeatedly considered the question of ‘practice’ in an academic context, its meanings and implications, following on from earlier writings on the relationship between practice and research (see an index to earlier blog posts on this subject here), then most recently two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need of different means to integrate practitioners into academia (see here and here) and then a blog article intended as a dialectical response to those articles, drawing upon a wider debate of the relationship between ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’, mapped by some onto ‘practitioners’ and ‘scholars’ respectively.
These subjects remain not only complex, both in theory and literally in ‘practice’, but also touch upon raw nerves amongst various scholars and practitioners. I have encountered significant rage from some composers at the suggestion that perhaps, just as few would suggest that musicological scholars are experts in the practice of composition, they might show some humility towards musicologists as well, rather than assuming they know just as much about their discipline and are equally adept at teaching it. Much of this anger likely relates to competition for positions in an ever-more competitive and narrowing academic job market, especially at the current time, when at least in some other arts/humanities subjects (not music as of recently, though over the last two decades a significant number of music departments and programmes have closed), departments have been making sweeping cuts (for example Roehampton University).
There are those who choose to view the humanities on one hand, and practical work and the sciences on the other, as fundamentally opposing groups of disciplines, not only in their subject matter, but also in approach, method, ethos, and so on, so that any teaching which relates to the former is antithetical to the latter. I fundamentally disagree, and believe this view is at odds with the defining aspect of a university (as also argued back in 2010 in an article by Terry Eagleton, claiming that a university without humanities would be like ‘a pub without alcohol’). But that issue, which leads back to C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on The Two Cultures, is extensive and for another article.
What I want to consider here is the role of universities in terms of engagement with practice, both practice undertaken by academics themselves, and that conducted in external institutions. In many ways I believe this is not just important but quite vital in a range of disciplines. Those working in medicine or other health sciences need to draw upon knowledge garnered through practical medical work, and conversely develop research with practical application. The same is true in study of business and the law. A literary scholar is engaging at a deep level with literary practice, just as is a music analyst with the musical equivalent. The extent to which academic research into the arts does or should feed into practice is more open to question, however. Certainly in the case of music there is a body of musicological opinion which is markedly sceptical about the value of performers using the findings of analytical and other research to inform their own performances, noting the very limited to which a great many important performers have done so over history, and how often their performances are quite distinct from what might be implied by such research. The same is true of composition – someone once wrote sardonically about composers who think that if one can analyse music, one can compose it, it is just a matter of doing the process in reverse! Nonetheless, in other ways performers do frequently draw upon knowledge in the business of crafting a performance (sometimes simply that garnered from listening to other performances), as do composers, and so such criticisms may in reality relate more to specific strategies than the use of external knowledge per se in the process of artistic creation.
Some areas such as pure maths (at the heart of my own first degree) may be different with respect to practical engagement; certainly from what I recall 35 years on a good deal of pure mathematical research was undertaken without primary consideration for its potential application, which was something to be discovered later on. I believe (but am no expert) that a similar approach underlies some work in other ‘pure’ sciences, and this is certainly true of those non-empirical branches of philosophy which believe in the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.
But in fields for which large areas of practical activity exist, it would be foolish to deny the value of engaging with knowledge drawn from this realm. I will from this point limit my discussion to artistic areas, as they are those which I know best. The key issue, in my view, is not whether but how one should do so. And this is where I would emphasise the vital aspect of a critical engagement with practice, and also of academic independence. When dealing with external practitioners or institutions dedicated to practice, one is confronted with those who have their own distinct desires, needs, economic imperatives, possible rivalries with others, and so on. Not all of these things would make for good scholarship if taken at face value. An artist may prefer a scholar to focus exclusively on their most successful work, not that whose merits might be more questionable, but a scholar who did so and claimed to be examining the work in its entirety would be disingenuous. The same is true of one examining a theatre and the responses of its audiences, who chose to bracket out from their study those audience responses which were less positive, in order to avoid upsetting the theatre owners. To use a dichotomy underlying a blog post from almost a decade ago, this is the difference between scholarship and PR. The scholar’s task is to follow where the results of their research lead them; to bury some of these in order to keep an external partner happy, or for that matter to undertake the research in such a way as to make such an outcome inevitable (as I have criticised sharply in some varieties of ethnographic work which eschew a critical view of the views and perceptions of their subjects, and as such can amount to hagiography), is to foresake one of the most fundamental aspects of being a scholar.
What I am arguing here is that critical scholarly engagement with practice (which can certainly involve partnerships and the like) should not be confused with a subservient relationship to this. This may not be the preference of some external practitioners, but if they wish for academic input, they need to respect the integrity of the academics involved.
But what about if the scholar is also the practitioner, as is the case in various forms of practice-as-research, artistic research, and so on? I have argued repeatedly that the question of whether certain practice is research is rather banal. In some ways most practice can be construed as such (as most practice requires answering certain types of questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and a range of methods for doing so), but what really matters is the quality of the research. This is not necessarily synonymous with what satisfies other aesthetic criteria (in an artistic context), but has to do with the generation of new knowledge expressed in the form of practice, which can have at least potential application for others. So an artist who develops new approaches which are found to bear aesthetic fruit, and upon which others can draw, would in an academic context generally be thought of as having done valuable research of a type.
Not all do accept this view of research (certainly artistic researchers have on the whole rejected the idea that research can simply be located in practice itself). I do accept it, but I am less sure of the extent to which it maps onto other forms of research, or qualifies the practitioner to undertake the latter, other than in some exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, while the quality of such research can, I believe, be gauged simply by close inspection of the practical work engendered, I wonder of the extent to which those engaged in assessment really do those to an intense degree (hardly possible if one has a wide range of things to assess), or whether the research quality is based upon finding the work more-or-less seems to resemble some of the qualities presented in associated verbal material (see my post on the 300-word statements that are essentially mandatory for submission of practice-based outputs to the REF).
Once again, I return to the question of critical engagement, or self-critical engagement. A practitioner can describe their work, even give a significant amount of detail about how it was put together, upon which ideas, philosophies or other determinants they have drawn (as one will find in many an ‘artist’s statement’), but that does not amount to this form of engagement. What can be difficult for practitioners is an attempt to ‘stand outside’ of their own work (and the immediate concerns of their own self), especially when in other contexts they are required to ‘sell themselves’ and in the process hide any acknowledgement of weaknesses, doubts or other more ambivalent self-reflection. Of course academics are far from immune to the latter tendency, which can sometimes dampen the possibilities of their own self-criticism, but they do function in scholarly arenas where if they do not do so, others can and often will follow up on vulnerabilities in their work, which is not always the case in more precious artistic circles.
The much-debated and contested field of autoethnography appears to me to hinge on the critical element; critical self-reflection upon personal experience, for the purposes of generating new knowledge which wider potential application is not the same thing as simply writing about oneself (which would be closer to autobiography), though a fair amount of writing and lectures I have encountered which is billed as autoethnography comes closer to the second category.
One anecdote may explain how these different attitudes and approaches can also inform teaching and its relationship to external practice. At a former institution, I was once tasked with developing a module on ‘Music and the Marketplace’, which I conceived as a broad consideration of the ways in which market forces inform music and music-making over a period of history, how other forms of music-making less subject to market forces might be different in nature, and so on. I had to be away for a period for some external performing work, so someone else took over the module design in my absence. When I returned, it had been changed to something like ‘How to get ahead in the musical marketplace’, which was a long way from my original design. What is the difference exactly? The module as originally conceived was about a critical engagement with the practice of music-making and its economic context. This by no means need imply a primarily negative view of market forces or their effect upon music, but should have been able to entertain a plurality of possible perspectives based upon careful and critical study of the phenomenon. The latter would have been entirely an ’employability’ module. Now I am certainly not going to deny the importance of such things. Some aspects of such teaching, such as how to write a CV or design a business plan, I would categorise as ancillary rather than academic skills – certainly they are things which do not necessarily require a university in order to be learned. But if employability skills become the only or primary things taught in a university context, or the attitude associated with them underlies the majority of teaching, I wonder then if a university degree has become more of a training course, lacking true intellectual inquiry and critical thinking that is more than purely functional. This touches on the question of a humanities approach – critical thinking in that context I would associate with a relatively dispassionate search for ‘pure’ knowledge, rather than subsuming that knowledge to narrow external criteria such as ‘how do I get ahead?’ or ‘how do I keep certain people happy?’
Any academic department without critical scholars will be impoverished in terms of the wider mission of a university. Practitioners can be critical scholars/thinkers as well, as can external partners, but one should not assume this is necessarily the case and certainly not ignore the possibility that other agendas may condition their thinking, either as expressed explicitly or implicitly assumed. In order that universities fulfil their central mission, it is vital to engage with practice, but in a critical and independent manner, whilst recognising that simply undertaking practice and promoting it in a certain way is not at all the same thing. And institutions must take care to guard and protect scholars’ independence from external pressures, simply to ensure that what they do remains scholarship. Then there is no reason to worry that engagement with practice entails any necessary conflict with the imperatives of research.
In advance of writing a new blog post on academic engagement with practice, I thought it might be useful to give links to my various writings on practice-research and other important links in one place here, much from the period following the publication of John Croft’s article ‘Composition is not Research’, Tempo, Vol. 69, Issue 272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11.
Here is Croft’s article and my response:
The following articles appeared in the same issue of Tempo as my response to Croft. Unfortunately there do not appear to be open access versions of them available.
Camden Reeves, ‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’.
John Croft, ‘Composing, Research and Ways of Talking’ (a response to both Reeves and myself)
Musicology is not Musical PR. A post from 2013, from when I started to think hard about the different value-systems and expectations of scholarship from practitioners and musicologists.
Research Forum, ‘Can Composition and Practice be Research? Critical Perspectives’, City University, November 25th, 2015. This was a post in advance of the debate.
‘Musicological Observations 4: Can Commercial Music be Research?’ This was an earlier article asking about the relationship between commerce and research in a musical context.
Performance-as-Research – A Reply to Luk Vaes. This was a response to an article by artistic researcher Luk Vaes (linked to in the post) in advance of the debate.
Video of Research Seminar on Composition and Performance as Research, and some wider responses to John Croft and others. This contains the full video of the debate, some of my text presented there (the information on university music departments is rather dated, and will be supplanted by new information posted on this blog soon), and wider responses to Croft’s response.
Some final thoughts on composition, performance, the REF, and teaching. Subsequent reflections following the debate.
Those 300-word statements on Practice-as-Research for the RAE/REF – origins and stipulations – ‘academic butt-covering’ or more problematic? Specifically on the role of 300-word statements accompanying practice-based outputs.
The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. An article written during the period of the 2018 industrial action in academia, collating a wide range of views on these institutions mostly expressed on social media, with wider links to literature on the subject. This contains a small amount relating to practice-research and the REF.
Musicological Thoughts 9: Practitioners and Scholars – Advocacy vs Criticism? A much more recent post, entailing some revision of earlier positions and somewhat more sceptical about the extent to which practitioners and scholars are able to find genuine common ground.
Musicological Thoughts 10: The Value of Empirical Musicology for the Performer? A piece written during the 2022 Performance Studies Network conference, after a mixture of listening to papers and practising, considering the relationship between practice and a particular musicological sub-discipline.
Two other articles, not blog posts, which I wrote earlier this year for the Times Higher Education Supplement, are also relevant in this context:
‘We need a Research and Practice Excellence Framework’ (10 May 2022)
‘University departments need a broad range of performing artists’ (22 May 2022) (written in response to Victoria Kelley, ‘The REF does not disadvantage practice-based subjects’ (13 May 2022)).
The blog post on ‘Practitioners and Scholars’ above is in part an attempt to offer a further side to this debate, not possible within the word-count of the THES articles.
The following are a range of further weblinks available at the time of the debate.
Piers Hellawell, ‘Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers.’
Luk Vaes, ‘When Composition is not Research.’
Lawrence Dunn, ‘Squaring the damn composition-research circle.’
Martin Parker Dixon, ‘Composition can be research (some comments on John Croft’s recent article).’
David Pocknee, ‘Composition Is Not A Jaffa Cake, Research Is Not A Biscuit: A Riposte to John Croft.’
Lauren Redhead, ‘Is Composition Research?’
Nicholas Till, ‘Opus versus Output’
Huib Schippers, ‘The Marriage of Art and Academia: Challenges and Opportunities for Music Research in Practice-based Environments.’
Christopher Fox, ‘Music for a Dis-Uniting Kingdom?’ (Including some reflections on composition as research).
The following book chapter continues some of the important themes. Unfortunately it is not available open access, but can be requested from the authors at the link below.
Martin Scheuregger and Christopher Leedham, ‘The Purpose of the Written Element in Composition PhDs’, in Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), pp. 65-90.
The website for PRAGUK (Practice Research Group UK) includes a good list of major texts on the subject. Especially important, coming out of this group, is the following:
And the following are some earlier relevant articles more widely on practice and research:
Christopher Frayling, ‘Research in Art and Design.’
Linda Candy, ‘Practice Based Research: A Guide.’
Joanne ‘Bob’ Whalley and Lee Miller, ‘Partly Cloudy, Chance of Rain: A Case Study’, in John Freeman (ed) Blood, Sweat and Theory: Research through Practice in Performance. (Middlesex University Press, London, 2010), pp. 218-232.
In several recent writings and various upcoming ones I have been considering in a more sustained fashion wider aspects of the culture of new music, both historically and in the present day. My long chapter, just published, ‘New Music: Performance Institutions and Practices’, in The Oxford Handbook of Music Performance, Volume 1, edited Gary E. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 396-455, traces the growth of a network of festivals, concert series and other aspects of a new music infrastructure from after the end of World War One, as well as the development of specialised performance skills on the part of individual interpreters and ensembles, all as part of a specific culture of ‘new music’ which developed with a degree of autonomy from a more mainstream culture of art music performance (as represented by orchestral, chamber, choral, solo concerts of repertoire primarily from the common practice period) over the course of a century. This very fact of inhabiting a separate realm is to me a defining aspect of new music, a term which has developed ever since the publication of Paul Bekker’s vital essay ‘Neue Musik’ (1919), advocating a range of new approaches to music, some of them then still relatively latent, which constituted a significant break with or at least shift of emphasis from the immediate past, one which was amplified at a time which saw the collapse of various aspects of the pre-war order, revolution in Russia, and an attempt revolution in Germany, which members of the influential Berlin Novembergruppe sought to sublimate into artistic creation.
In ‘Modernist Fantasias: The Recuperation of a Concept’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 144, no. 2 (2019), pp. 473-493, starting from a detailed critical examination of The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music, edited Björn Heile and Charles Wilson (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2019), I consider the provenance and development of the term ‘modernism’ (and its equivalents such as French modernisme, German Moderne, Spanish modernismo and so on) both in music and other arts, not least in terms of recent attempts to frame the concept more broadly than hitherto (in some cases to date it back to the French Revolution) as well as to recapture it as a living force deserving of reconsideration, as informed the so-called New Modernist Studies in literary and cultural scholarship beginning in 1999, which has been matched more gradually by the growth of parallel scholarship in music. I have also been working on a book chapter considering the historiography of new music since 1989, and recently gave a lecture looking more broadly at historiographical issues through the 20th and 21st century, which have also been the theme of other lectures and publications considering the ways in which ‘experimental’ and ‘minimal’ music have informed such historiography.
All of this work, combined with my ongoing work on the creation and development of the infrastructure for new music in post-1945 Germany, have brought to the fore difficult questions relating to new music as a whole and its place today. I have been professionally active as a pianist in the world of new music for three decades, and have become intimately aware of its range of mores, orthodoxies, internal politics, and so on, and the ways in which its institutions and those operating those tend to work. It remains a field of cultural activity which in my opinion has immense value, but claims for its wider importance and significance are less easy to articulate in a manner which might convince those who need convincing. But this latter activity, if one believes this importance to be the case (which I do, but in a less unequivocal manner than I might have done 15-20 years ago), is vital if those engaged with new music seek an impact and respect beyond the narrow realms of fellow travellers. This is not so often to be found, and a reticence to engage with the wider issues concerned suggests either dangerous complacency or even a wilful disregard married to a sense of entitlement, which I believe should be challenged.
I am fully aware that there are a great many who would describe a lot of the atonal music I play (and even some of the more dissonant late tonal music as well), and which those I know compose, at the politest as ‘not music’, often through much harsher derogatory epithets. These will include some friends, some students and many other members of the wider public with no personal investment in this work nor necessarily any desire for such. It is much too easy to dismiss those who think in such a way as idiots, philistines, etc., in the process writing off large swathes of any population. But in my experience those who think such a way do not particular care unless they feel made to listen to such music, whether in a performance situation where it is not their reason for being there, feeling it is imposed upon them in education, or in the face of stentorian claims about its importance.
Yet one might struggle to be aware of this within the rarefied circles of those professionally involved in new music. That a great many people might be not simply indifferent but actively hostile to their music in the contexts described above can seem a subject which it is unacceptable even to consider. That the work of musicians involved must be vital and must deserve the widest support is an article of faith, or at least amongst different factions of individuals, who do not necessarily extend this view to members of rival factions. Some looking from outside might be shocked to see the extent of the personalised vitriol extended by some towards anyone (not least critics, but also various others) who aver an opinion that they do not find some piece of music engaging, moving, or some other quality they seek. The response can be to pathologise those who think such a way, or seek to disallow their opinions from being heard. Following the recent death of Richard Taruskin, there was a furious set of posts on social media about a highly critical review he wrote of two CDs of the American composer Donald Martino, which extended into a wider critique of aspects of new music (see below). The view seemed to be that the only type of legitimate review is one which praises this type of work, and anything else should not be allowed to be printed. It would be interesting to see this principle applied to restaurant reviewing – I am sure some restaurant owners would be more than happy.
There are ways to frame new music and its particularity which avoid the need to make wider claims for its public significance. In a 2014 article, Martin Iddon conceptualised new music as a type of ‘subculture’, drawing upon the concept propounded most notoriously by Dick Hebdige in his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style. I have used this concept myself in my ‘New Music’ article mentioned above, but have doubts (some reservations expressed in a footnote there did not make it into the final version!). Certainly new music has from the outset entailed a realm of activity distinct from a ‘mainstream’, as is true of many subcultures explored and theorised by Hebdige and others (space does not allow consideration here of the later concept of ‘post-subculture’). But its economic situation is not at all comparable with the subculture of the mods, rockers, punks or whatever. In large measure, new music activity relies heavily on subsidy for its continued operation; it would not be financially viable via ticket sales alone, other than very small operations. This subsidy comes either from public money generated through taxation and distributed in various ways via local, regional and state arts organisations, as is the case in much of Western Europe and to a lesser extent the UK (though considerably less so in the United States), or through the patronage of universities, in which those involved in new music production may find employment and some concomitant financial support for their activities. These things lend such music a level of institutional or official prestige which is quite uncharacteristic of other forms of subculture. If one could imagine a group of death metal fans receiving regular government grants to develop their music, clothing, writings, and so on, and present these in major government-backed venues, this would surely seem a long way from the conventional idea of a subculture.
Here subcultural theory does present one phenomenon which is familiar in part: numerous studies observe how subcultures, despite defining themselves in opposition to some mainstream, exhibit marked homologous tendencies and appear to require a degree of discipline and unity from their own members, with little tolerance for internal dissent. In the case of new music circles, it would be untrue to deny the existence of divisions, because of the opposing factions mentioned earlier. But these are divisions between different groups competing for the mantle of new music, seen as representing progress, the one true way forward, the most supposedly enlightened form of music, and so on. It would be much more rare to hear many within any faction questioning the status of new music as a whole, or the purpose of its institutions. Some who have done – not least various of the key figures viewed as ‘minimalist’ (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, etc.) – have tended to operate to a large degree outside of these circles, while others holding to a neo-romantic or other related late tonal aesthetic have sought and sometimes found recognition within more mainstream performance circles.
In subsequent posts, I will consider wider issues to do with the institutionalisation of new music, the means by which it is legitimated (not least, in present times, by attachment to various political causes), and look more widely at the question of why new music and its practitioners enjoy a status in universities not always granted to other types of musicians and scholars. But here I want to consider some of the starkly opposed views from musicians scholars regarding the prestige of new music.
Milton Babbitt was one of the most articulate advocates of the benefits of new music composition in a university setting, allowing some degree of autonomy from audience indifference or hostility, or commercial pressures. This was outlined in his essay ‘The Composer as Specialist’ (1958), first published in High Fidelity, vol. 8, no. 2 (February 1958) to which editors (rather than Babbitt himself) gave the title ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’
Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music oranything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. But to this, a double-standard is invoked, with the words “music is music,” implying also that “music is just music.” Why not, then, equate the activities of the radio repairman with those of thetheoretical physicist, on the basis of the dictum that “physics is physics”? It is not difficult to find statements like the following, from the New York Times of September 8, 1957: “The scientific level of the conference is so high . . . that there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute.” Specialized music on the other hand, far from signifying “height” of musical level, has been charged with “decadence,” even as evidence of an insidious “conspiracy.”
I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.
But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that, after all, such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university, which—significantly—has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the “complex,” “difficult,” and “problematical” in music. Indeed, the process has begun; and if it appears to proceed too slowly, I take consolation in the knowledge that in this respect, too, music seems to be in historically retarded parallel with now sacrosanct fields of endeavor. In E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, we read: “In the eighteenth century the universities were not the principal centers of research in Europe. They might have become such sooner than they did but for the classical tradition and its understandable hostility to science. Mathematics was close enough to antiquity to be respectable, but physics, being more recent, was suspect. Further, a mathematician in a university of the time would have been expected to put much of his effort on elementary teaching; his research, if any, would have been an unprofitable luxury.” A simple substitution of “musical composition” for “research”, of “academic” for “classical”, of “music” for “physics,” and of “composer” for “mathematician,” provides a strikingly accurate picture of the current situation. And as long as the confusion I have described continues to exist, how can the university and its community assume other than that the composer welcomes and courts public competition with the historically certified products of the past, and the commercially certified products of the present?
Perhaps for the same reason, the various institutes of advanced research and the large majority of foundations have disregarded this music’s need for means of survival. I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study.
Babbitt’s article demonstrates an unerring faith of a notion of musical ‘progress’, which he maps onto scientific research. But he does not ask what purpose the ‘complex’, ‘difficult’ and ‘problematical’ in music serves? It is not so difficult to demonstrate the wider impact and application of various types of science, but what is the equivalent for music? Over a hundred years on, Schoenberg’s atonal and dodecaphonic explorations have won only a modest following even amongst musicians, certainly compared to the more widespread valuing of music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, and others who were once viewed as members of avant-gardes. Some might cite the occasional use of atonal material in film or video games for particular effect, but this seems very modest in comparison to the claims made by Babbitt.
The polar opposite of Babbitt’s view can be found in feminist scholar Susan McClary’s essay ‘Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition’, Cultural Critique, No. 12 (Spring 1989), pp. 57-81, somewhat notorious in musicological circles. McClary considers the views of Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt on certain valorisations of ‘difficult’ music and its distance from mainstream audiences (though she has relatively little to say on the music itself):
Perhaps only with the twentieth-century avant-garde, however, has there been a music that has sought to secure prestige precisely by claiming to renounce all possible social functions and values [….]
This strange posture was not invented in the twentieth century, of course. It is but the reductio ad absurdum of the nineteenth-century notion that music ought to be an autonomous activity, insulated from the contamination of the outside social world. […]
In this century (especially following World War II), the “serious” composer has felt beleaguered both by the reified, infinitely repeated classical music repertory and also by the mass media that have provided the previously disenfranchised with modes of “writing” and distribution-namely recording, radio, and television. Thus even though Schoenberg, Boulez,and Babbitt differ enormously from each other in terms of socio-historical context and music style, they at least share the siege mentality that has given rise to the extreme position we have been tracing: they all regard the audience as an irrelevant annoyance whose approval signals artistic failure. [….]
By aligning his music with the intellectual elite-with what he identifies as the autonomous “private life” of scholarship and science (this at the height of the Cold War!) – Babbitt appeals to a separate economy that confers prestige, but that also (it must be added) confers financial support in the form of foundation grants and university professorships. [….]
Babbitt’s rhetoric has achieved its goal: most university music departments support resident composers (though many, including the composers in my own department, find the “Who Cares if You Listen” attitude objectionable); and the small amount of money earmarked by foundations for music commissions is reserved for the kind of “serious” music that Babbitt and his colleagues advocate.
I objected a good deal to McClary’s essay when I first read it some 20 years ago, but as time has gone on have come to felt that she is onto something important in her allusions to legitimation via alignment to scholarship and science, though the exaggerated statements about claims to autonomy are unsustainable, especially today, when so many composers seek to justify their work as much through allusions to society and politics as through its musical merits.
I mentioned earlier a review-article by Richard Taruskin which generated a lot of anger amongst new music practitioners. In a range of writings, including in the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin has been sharply critical about many claims made by those associated with modernism and the avant-garde to the mantle of history, and of the ways in which historiography and pedagogy has foregrounded work of this type and marginalised other varieties. Perhaps the most prominent expression of Taruskin’s view is that article which takes some CD reviews of the music of Donald Martino as its starting point, ‘How Talented Composers Become Useless’. This was first published in The New York Times on 10 March 1996, and reprinted in the collection The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2009), pp. 86-93. Like McClary, Taruskin grounds his critic in an attack on the position of Babbitt:
By comparing “serious” or “original” contemporary music to mathematics (and appropriating concepts like seriousness and originality to one kind of music was where the arrogance lay), Mr. Babbitt was saying, in effect, that such music was to be valued and judged not for the pleasure it gave but for the truth it contained. Truth, in music as in math, lay in accountability to basic principles of relatedness. In the case of math, these were axioms and theorems: basic truth assumptions and the proofs they enabled. In the case of music, truth lay in the relationship of all its details to a basic axiomatic premise called the twelve-tone row.
Again, Mr. Babbitt’s implied contempt and his claims of exclusivity apart, the point could be viewed as valid. Why not allow that there could be the musical equivalent of an audience of math professors? It was a harmless enough concept in itself—although when the math professors went on to claim funds and resources that would otherwise go to the maintenance of the “lay” repertory, it was clear that the concept did not really exist “in itself”; it inescapably impinged on social and economic concerns. Yet calling his work the equivalent of a math lecture did at least make the composer’s intentions and expectations clear. You could take them or leave them. […]
Mr. Martino’s piano music […] strives for conventional expressivity while trying to maintain all the privileged and prestigious truth claims of academic modernism. Because there is no structural connection between the expressive gestures and the twelve-tone harmonic language, the gestures are not supported by the musical content (the way they are in Schumann, for example, whose music Mr. Martino professes to admire and emulate). And while the persistent academic claim is that music like Mr. Martino’s is too complex and advanced for lay listeners to comprehend, in fact the expressive gestures, unsupported by the music’s syntax or semantics, are primitive and simplistic in the extreme. [….]
The reason it is still necessary to expose these hypocrisies, even after the vaunted “postmodern” demise of serialism, is that the old-fashioned modernist position still thrives in its old bastion, the academy. Composers like Mr. Martino are still miseducating their pupils just as he was miseducated himself, dooming them to uselessness. Critics and “theorists,” many of them similarly miseducated, are still propagandizing for Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms in the concert hall, offering their blandishments as consolation for the loss of a musical language and decrying the attempts of younger composers to find a new one.
Taruskin has gone on to be a leading advocate of the ‘Cold War’ view of avant-garde musical history, which maintains essentially that the institutionalisation and prestige of avant-garde music was a product of both an intellectual culture privileging quasi-scientific positivism, and was dominant in US universities, but also the conspiratorial view, which I maintain is utterly false on the basis of a lot of archival result, that the success of the Darmstadt Summer Schools for new music, and other aspects of new music in Europe, were the result of covert funding by the CIA. There is no evidence to substantiate this (unlike with some other art forms, from which information this conclusion has simply been inferred); as Ian Wellens in particular has shown, the primary CIA-funded organisation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, had as its secretary general Nicolas Nabokov, who showed no real interest in serial and other avant-garde composition in the post-1945 era (as compared to his advocacy of the music of Stravinsky), and the events sponsored by the CCF are too exceptional and unrepresentative as to be defining in terms of the wider history. I will expand on this in a subsequent post.
A British figure who has delivered harsh critiques of new music and the prestige it entertains is Nicholas Cook, from whom I offer two citations. The first is from his ‘On Qualifying Relativism’, Musica Scientiae, vol. 5, issue 2 supplement (September 2001), pp. 167-189.
As Richard Toop (who works in Sydney but is closely associated with the European avanr-garde) points out, composition occupies very different roles in different countries. In North America it has been almost inextricably entangled with universities since the early days of Babbitt (whose “social contract”, as Herman Sabbe points out, “is with the academy”); the relationship is only a little less close in Britain, where composition is fully accepted as a form of research for purposes of institutional and national quality reviews. But in continental Europe, as Toop goes on to say, contemporary music revolves around festivals and radio stations; “One may be dealing with a heavily subsidized market place,” he adds, “but it’s a market place none the less.” Makis Solomos also raises the issue of subsidy, contrasting the subsidization of contemporary music in France with the situation in Britain (where the subsidies do exist, incidentally, but they go towards propping up the social rituals of the Royal Opera House rather than into contemporary music).
Solornos’s key observation, however, is that “en France, où les subventions existent, la musique contemporaine a un public”. It does in Britain and America too, of course, but there the audience has traditionally been one of contemporary music buffs, a niche within a niche. (One should recognize the potential for change not only through the cross-over musical styles of composers like Glass or Zorn, but also through the incorporation of contemporary music within educational and outreach programmes, which is why I said “traditionally”: all part of the crumbling of barriers to which I referred in my Foreword.) And when taking part in conferences or workshops in such countries as Holland, Belgium, and Germany I have always been struck by the centrality of contemporary composition within the definition of what “music” is and what an intelligent interest in the subject might mean: it is simply taken for granted that one has an interest in and commitment to contemporary music, in a way that it would never be in a similar situation in Britain or America. But it seems that the position of contemporary music is even more varied than this might suggest, to judge by the comments of Robert Walker (who writes from the University of New South Wales, Sydney): “it is indeed ironic”, he says,”that the academy can now include Beatles songs in analysis classes and research reports, but still not Berio’s vocal music”. And later he talks of Messiaen, Britten, Cage, and electronic music, and comments that “The music academy has shown comparatively scant interest in all this”. That surprised me, not only because new music was high on the agenda when I was teaching at Sydney University (though that was back in 1988), but also because music from Messiaen and Cage to Berio and beyond is well represented in the British academy, far beyond any possible measure of the music’s dissemination throughout society at large. It is popular music that is under-represented, resulting in a situation where the few PhDs in this area get quickly snapped up by university departments anxious to respond to the interests of their students.
Writers on contemporary ‘art’ music—what they often call ‘new music’—generally act as apologists, in the same sense as the earliest analysts did: writing in the early decades of the 19th century, these analysts’ basic purpose was to explain the coherence and hence the greatness of Beethoven’s music, despite its discontinuities and sudden irruptions and otherwise incoherent appearance (it would hardly be exaggeration to say that the whole genre of musical analysis developed as an act of advocacy for Beethoven). In the same way, writers on new music either argue that the music is aesthetically attractive even though it might appear otherwise on first acquaintance, or they argue that its aesthetic unattractiveness is integral to its cultural significance (and sometimes, just to make sure, they argue both). Their advocacy is prompted by the increasingly marginalised nature of the music—now even to some extent within academia—and this apologetic function is built into the genre: if you pick a book on new music off the shelf, you expect it to fulfil this role of advocacy, and again the few books that have attacked new music have appeared anomalous against this background. [….]
I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) And at least as far as the contributors to the Musicae Scientiae collection were concerned, this revolved not so much around the aesthetic properties of new music as its critical potential. In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?
Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’.
There are many ripostes to the views of McClary, Taruskin and Cook, just as there are to that of Babbitt, or those advocates of latter day composition-as-research who essentially adhere to his view. In subsequent posts I will consider some of these in more detail.
But for now, I just want to end with a plea for moderation. New music is a niche interest; this much appears very clear, and there is little evidence of such a situation changing. Can we accept this, and move away from both the unmediated and exaggerated claims for its centrality of Babbitt, the hatred and aggression towards dissenters, but also the types of denunciations of McClary, Taruskin and Cook, often clothed in ferocious political language (as with Cook’s attempts to link Boissière to the Nazis, to which I have alluded on here before)?
Those involved in new music who enjoy institutional prestige and economic wherewithal because of existing situations are unlikely to be sympathetic to any view which questions their status. Nor are those who jealously covet such a thing from different fields likely to have any sympathy towards them. Neither of these groups are likely to engage in mature scholarly debate. But such a debate ought to be possible without degenerating into polarised oppositions, including some of those presented above.
Rightly or wrongly, today it seems quite widely assumed that a defence of high culture (and its public funding) is a conservative position, at odds with ‘progressive’ arguments which reject that it has any intrinsic value over and above popular/commercial alternatives, and as such deserves no special treatment (also that Western high culture is deeply entwined with colonialism, an argument I have attempted to address in a musical context in this article recently published in The Critic magazine).
At the height of the Thatcher-Reagan era, in 1989 (when both politicians were near the end of their careers, but their policies had become firmly entrenched), two books in the field of cultural studies appeared which argued this perspectively on high/low culture most fervently: John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) and Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989). Fiske interprets various approaches to consumption (which he describes as ‘a tactical raid upon the system’), such as sporting of particular garments, make-up or hairstyles, as guerrilla actions which subvert dominant values, writing that ‘At the point of sale the commodity exhausts its role in the distribution economy, but begins its work in the cultural. Detached from the strategies of capitalism, its work for the bosses completed, it becomes a resource for the culture of everyday life’. Ross is utterly scathing about any type of defence of high culture, seeing in this an affront to the values of democracy, and a hegemonic attempt by a dominant class to protect their privilege.
Yet in the House of Commons, a very different political alignment was made clear the following year. It came about in a speech during a debate on arts funding by hard right-wing Conservative MP Terry Dicks (1937-2020), then MP for Hayes and Harlington:
Terry Dicks: My hon. Friend said that the arts contribute to the quality of life. Perhaps he could explain to me one day how the arts’ contribution to the quality of life affects my pensioners and ordinary people who want to buy a pint and have a game of bingo– [Interruption.] Their quality of life is not enhanced by seeing some man prance about in a box or by listening to the different range of an opera singer.
Other questions that I should like to ask–which nobody answers, certainly not any of the great and the good on the Opposition Benches–is, what is art? What is culture? Who defines it? The answers to those questions are personal, but I know who the hell pays for it. The ordinary chap down the street pays for most of it, while the great and the good take advantage.
We have heard about the royal opera house. I shall show the way in which it thinks about money. I gather that it is about £3 million in debt. It spent £200,000 recently on a production. It has agreed to a 15 per cent. increase for ballet dancers who prance around, pretending they are toys, at an annual cost of £600,000. I find it strange that the arts world is up in arms about the lack of money yet ballet dancers can get a 15 per cent. increase, which is twice the rate of inflation. Nobody mentions that–certainly no Opposition Member has mentioned it. When extra money is called for, all the whingers appear on both sides of the Chamber [Interruption.] Every man, well and good, appears. Nobody should need to question the situation : everyone should understand what needs to be done. Why should we subsidise old pros dressed in doublets and hose? I do not understand.
In common with my right hon. Friend the Minister, I could say that it is all “Much Ado About Nothing”, but I am not an expert on Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company has made its bed and it must lie on it. I see no justification for a grant increase, nor can I see any justification for any grant. No one in the working class, or the people I represent, could give a toss about the Royal Shakespeare Company staying open or closing down. There is nothing special about it.
One can compare and contrast the RSC with the commercial theatre, which must survive by putting on a programme that people are prepared to pay an economic cost to see. The same argument applies to professional football. In common, I am sure, with many colleagues I received a copy of a letter from Ken Bates, who is the chairman of Chelsea football club. He says :
“The Arts Council grant to the Opera House this year is more than £13.3 million, or £75,000 a week I’d be interested to know what percentage that is of the Opera House’s total income.”
So would I.
“Far from offering us any subsidy or assistance, it”–the Government–“takes £300 million a year in betting tax out of the game, which is equal to £3 million per Football League club”
Is it not strange that the working-class pastime gets hammered by the taxman while the upper-class pastime–I notice that a member of the middle class is sitting next to the upper-class man on the Opposition Front Bench- -is subsidised all the time by the rest of us. The poor chap down the road must pay the full whack to see Brentford or Chelsea, apart from the cost that he must meet in the future towards increased safety in those football grounds. He must pay for that ticket from his own pocket, but the great and the good, in their bow ties and long frocks, get them paid for by someone else. It is strange that we adopt such an approach to the upper class in this House and we forget the ordinary people who put us here. [ Hon. Members– : “Hear, hear.”] I am glad that the audience is so good, and that most of the audience have had a good dinner.
Child benefit has not been uprated for a couple of years and the ambulance men are being offered only 6.5 per cent. for this year–
After a few other interventions, and more from Dicks, the then-Labour MP for Newham North-West, Tony Banks (1942-2006) (associated with the relatively hard left, an ally of Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn), responded as follows:
Tony Banks: My right hon. and hon. Friends know that an economically efficient and socially just society will not only address the problems of homelessness, poverty and unemployment that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) mentioned. Such a society will support also a thriving and burgeoning arts expenditure. It is a mark of a confident and strong society that it encourages and nurtures the arts. The Victorians did it in the past in this country, and the French, Germans and Italians do it today.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is not in his place, because listening to him opining on the arts is rather like listening to Vlad the Impaler presenting “Blue Peter”. The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly living proof that a pig’s bladder on a stick can be elected as a Member of Parliament.
Several Hon. Members rose —
Mr. Speaker : Order. I know–but although the hon. Gentleman’s comments may not be very pleasant, they are not unparliamentary.
This amusing exchange shows how the political alignment I outlined at the beginning of this piece has by no means always been accepted. Some of us on the left still believe passionately in the value of high culture, and of subsidy to try and make it available to a wider section of the population. For all that I would never defend Soviet communism, the success of such a venture on a large scale is made clear in Pauline Fairclough’s book Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), and recently in a fantastic keynote on ‘The Soviet model of teaching music at universities and conservatories, and its implementation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe’ at my conference on ‘Music and the University: History, Models, Prospects’ (of which more in a blog post to follow), Serbian musicologist Ivana Medić gave plentiful detail about how this approach was disseminated through Eastern Europe (including in countries which had broken with Moscow such as Yugoslavia), and still informs musical education today. There remains plenty to learn from this.
One of the biggest challenges for any performer of jazz, at least as the majority of jazz players I know would say, has to do with rhythm, and specifically the performance of uneven rhythms so as to ‘swing’. Some have tried to notate these, sometimes very approximately, sometimes in much more detail. But the consensus appears to be that codifying such a rhythm then simply executing according to the ‘rules’ thus generated will sound artificial and contrived. Furthermore, it is difficult via such an approach to be flexible in one’s ‘swinging’, as the nature of this can be subject to small variations depending upon the musical moment, or to respond to the particular variants heard from other players in a group setting. So in general, there is thought to be no real substitute for simply playing with others on a regular basis, and absorbing the rhythm through listening, imitation, osmosis.
A parallel situation applies to language learning. While it may be possible to learn a good deal of vocabulary and grammar, even some idiomatic usage, through independent study, from textbooks, etc., many believe there is no real substitute from being immersed amongst native speakers, having to communicate on a regular basis without necessarily having recourse to ‘guides’ when immediate responses are needed. This is not least to do with the process of learning a decent accent (something generally thought rarely to be possible to such an extent as one could pass as a native speaker to other native speakers, unless one learns from a young age), but also absorbing a wide range of idiomatic employment in the form of speech (writing is a different matter).
It would be rash to rule out the possibility that there could ever be found means of learning jazz performance, or languages, in such a way that obviates the necessity for such regular interaction amongst those who have absorbed the idioms. But I am not aware of such means having yet been discovered and comprehensively tested.
This brings me to the question of empirical musicology (by which I mean specifically that using empirical means of measurement of aural data, by software such as Sonic Visualiser or other alternatives) for the analysis of musical performance, something which has been on my mind during a (generally excellent and very stimulating) conference on Performance Studies which I am currently attending (today is the last day). Empirical Musicology is a relatively recent development, about which an important edited volume was published in 2004, edited by Nicholas Cook and Eric Clarke, and for which there is a dedicated academic journal. With roots in the use of quantitative approaches employed in music psychology, and some others relating to such things as bodily motion during performance, a range of musicologists have increasingly used this to analyse various parameters of musical performance, especially tempo and its modification, rhythm, also pitch, timbre (notoriously difficult to analyse using more qualitative means), dynamics and so on.
The value of musical analysis (in the broadest sense) is not uncontested; it is an activity developed within the realms of academia which has not necessarily played a significant role (or a role at all) in the actual work of a great many practising musicians past and present. Cook himself, in his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (about which I published an extended review-article which also considers more widely the field of performance studies) was sharply critical of what he described as ‘Analytically-Informed Performance’ (AIP) whereby performers shape their interpretations according to priorities determined by analysts. Focusing on some key writings by music analysts Wallace Berry and Eugene Narmour, Cook suggests this implies a hegemonic imposition of academic ideologies on the world of music-making, not least because the dialogue appears one-way; he believes analysts have as much to learn from listening to performers as vice versa. So far, I can agree that a more two-way approach would be fruitful, but here and elsewhere Cook expresses major scepticism about the possibility that performers could learn anything of value from analysis and analysts, questioning the value at all of a musicological discipline which he has also linked to creating artificial hierarchies of value.
Here I disagree. I have my own scepticism about the value of certain highly systematised modes of analysis, such as grew up especially in the early post-1945 era in the United States, which has been plausibly argued to have been driven both by a positivistic, scientistic academic climate in which research in the arts and humanities was valued largely to the extent it could on the surface mimic the trappings of a ‘science’, but also by the growth of mass education and the concomitant need to find approaches to analysis which could be taught on an industrial scale and learned almost by rote. Much of the analytical work I have read from continental European musicologists has been no less rigorous or thorough, but more ad hoc in nature, freely adapting a variety of tools (or creating new ones) according to needs of the music at hand, and as such avoiding the unhappy situation by which the key criterion appears to be whether the music serves to bolster the theory, rather than vice versa.
But if one embraces a broader conception of analysis, to encompass most approaches to understanding the inner workings of a musical composition (or a performance or other sonic phenomenon), then I think not only can this be invaluable for performers (and listeners) possessing any basic curiosity, but also actually something that many performers do as a matter of course to some extent, as I argued in a keynote lecture entitled ‘In Defence of Analytically-Informed Performance’, delivered in a conference in São Paulo in 2019, which I intend to revise for publication at some point soon.
It is very far from unusual, for example, for a performer to gauge a series of mounting dynamic curves in a series of phrases leading to a mini-climax according to the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic properties of the information contained in the score. This may be done in a relatively intuitive and non-systematic manner, but nonetheless does constitute a form of analysis, a discernment of aspects of the score which reveal something about the musical processes, which then inform aspects of the realisation of the score in performance. Whether this perspective is generated simply by playing the music to oneself and listening, or some more studied process of identifying chord progressions, melodic properties, etc., does not make it any more or less ‘analysis’, in my view.
I was doing this myself (essentially intuitively) when practising the opening passage of the last movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, op. 17, yesterday, trying out different ways of shaping the two-bar phrases in bars 5-14, in terms of relative dynamic peaks, my choices informed by such factors as the extent to which the music modulates away from the home key before returning to a dominant harmony on the relative minor in bar 10, or the transformation of the bass line from a descending progression starting in whole tones towards a chromatic one in bars 11-14. Much is at stake in these bars in terms of the expressive and emotional trajectory prior to a return to a dominant pedal point in the home key in bar 15. Similarly, the shift to the major submediant in bar 2 is striking in the context of the wider style. Even after having played this work for over 30 years and having heard many others perform it, it still makes an impact, and so I wonder about such questions as whether to register this sentiment by a small holding back of the pulse and tenuto at the beginning of bar 2.
Even if I am describing aspects of the score above using very basic technical terms, I do not believe that I am in any sense unusual in grappling with such interpretive questions; the use of that language is simply a way to articulate some information discerned essentially intuitively so as to be comprehensible to one reading this piece of writing.
Empirical musicology is on another level in terms of the technical language and illustrations employed. Over the course of the conference, I have been looking at highly detailed charts, multi-coloured shapes (containing many hues) to illustrate timbral properties, animated graphics to trace the variation in basic pulse during a performance. Much of this yields interesting insights and conclusions, some of which appear to be established on a more secure basis than might have been possible otherwise.
But then I do ask the basic question: what purpose does this research serve? In one case, the researcher suggested that they were attempting to codify the rhythmic practices found to be common in a particular regionality when performing some music identified with that regionality, so that those performing such works in more remote locations could do a type of ’empirical musicology in reverse’ (my term, not theirs) and translate these back into performance.
But this is where I become more sceptical, and wonder if the results of such a process would ever really convince, for the same reasons as those outlined above with respect to jazz or language learning. How much music-making can really be reduced to a finite set of stylistic principles which can be codified and reproduced so as to create plausible imitation of the ‘real thing’? I would need to hear a range of realisations of this model to judge that, but do not have a huge amount of faith. Musical style is not, I believe, something so easily reified, but a flexible and continuously developing thing, driven as much (in repertoire involving more than one musician) by regular interactions between players as by collective adherence to a set of rules.
The context of this had to do with global music-making, in particular performance of a certain repertoire at localities a long distance from the music’s point of origin, also the place where the most regular and distinctive performance tradition has occurred over an extended period. But one possible conclusion from the above – that it is no more possible to perform in a relatively ‘unaccented’ style without regular interactions with the music’s ‘native speakers’ than is the case for speaking a language – may be unacceptable in terms of global aspirations. I should emphasise here that the analogy of a ‘native speaker’ does not really have anything to do with particular upbringing, nationality and certainly not ethnicity; it is about whether one has had the opportunities over an extended period for acculturation through musical interaction with others well-versed in the style. This ought in theory to be perfectly possible amongst diaspora communities; a group of Georgian folk singers who relocate in Brazil could in some sense continue a tradition of such singing in the new location, and incorporate into it others not originally from Georgia (whether other social and political factors might influence the extent to which this actually happens is of course a whole other set of questions).
Empirical musicology applied to performance attempts to provide an alternative to this, a means of learning a style through applying a set of principles obtained through systematic empirical analysis of performance. Those employing those are of course also free to listen to the original performances too, but what they may not be able to do is play together with other musicians versed in it.
Is this a viable alternative? I am not sure, and would need much more evidence to be convinced. But there is another possibility to consider, related to the considerations of the post-1945 United States academic environment I described above. Whether or not this research has a wider ‘impact’ (to use a buzzword familiar to all those in UK academia), could such empirical musicology be notable primarily as a means of trying to turn a lot of what musicians do anyhow, without necessarily having any input from academics, so as to appear like a type of quasi-scientific ‘research’ which is thought to be the best way to secure the status and funding of a particular academic sub-disciplines?
There was an interesting recent social media thread from Cambridge Professor of Music Marina Frolova-Walker, following reading of some unhappy Twitter exchanges between musicians and musicologists. I am not exactly sure which these were, but there had recently been a particularly angry set of responses to conductor Kenneth Woods after his suggestion that some young musicians were not getting the type of training and experience they need when the National Youth Orchestra spent half a programme on some contemporary works – which I have not personally heard – which he described as ‘tenth rate’ and not featuring much of consequence for the players to do. Some may not realise that any type of value judgement is rejected and even despised in some musicological quarters, and so many responses were to pile on Woods for daring to indulge in such a thing, which is after all ‘subjective’ (as if a lot of what musicologists say and write does not also fall into this category).
Anyhow, Frolova-Walker (who I am citing with permission) suggested wryly (and perhaps only half-seriously) that musical practitioners and music academics might to best to keep apart from each other, since they inhabit such different worlds, value systems, use different vocabularies, etc. This provoked considerable debate, some including myself reluctant to throw in the towel when it comes to fruitful interactions between practitioners and scholars. One of Frolova-Walker’s conclusions was ‘performing is about advocacy, musicology is about criticism’. From a position of high respect, I want to consider this dichotomy further. For the purposes of this post, I define ‘scholars’ as those who produce generally written outputs in the standard forms (article, book chapter, monograph) for academic publishers; ‘practitioners’ as those whose work is primarily in the form of practice – performance, composition, artistic installation, recording, video, etc.
This issue, which I have touched upon in earlier blog posts (see here, here, here and here) is naturally very close to my own heart, as I straddle the worlds of performance and scholarship. Sometimes I like to think this makes me able to bridge the two worlds, but equally often I can feel estranged from and sceptical about both. Frolova-Walker’s point about different vocabularies employed by practitioners and scholars is highly familiar; even such basic terms as ‘the canon’ or ‘Western art music’ are found much more frequently amongst scholars than practitioners, in my experience, whilst few scholars are happy with ideas of ‘musicality’ and the like.
I have recently published two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need for universities to facilitate higher academic status and progression for a range of practitioners in the performing arts (see here and here), questioning in particular the use (in the UK) of the Research Excellence Framework as the primary measure of the value of their work. This short article is in a sense a rejoinder to those from a different perspective which realises the limits of the field of practitioners, after advocating for their academic integration.
The concepts of ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’ can of course have a variety of meanings or emphases. ‘Advocacy’ can mean a basically supportive though not uncritical view of some phenomenon (such as some artistic work), but can also mean either a rigid or even a defensive attitude towards such a thing, which brooks for no dissenting views, and thus can be dismissive of such views, or even try to pathologise those who hold them. ‘Criticism’ can imply something a primarily pejorative view of a phenomenon (in that sense, the direct opposite of advocacy), but here I believe it was intended more in the manner of ‘critique’, relating to a more dispassionate evaluation of a phenomenon (in the case of musicology, this could be an aesthetic critique, an ideology critique, or other type of commentary or analysis of musical phenomena undertaken with that degree of critical distance that is generally believed to be the best approach for a scholar).
Can or should musicologists be advocates? The former Regius Professor of Music at Cambridge, Nicholas Cook, thinks they should not. In a 2003 article (‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), pp. 249-261), examines a range of types of advocacy found in musical writing – for individual composers and performers (especially in biographical writing), for rock musicians by demonstrating various qualities within their work, advocacy for new music, arguing for its merits in the face of marginalisation, for early music, and political advocacy for the writers’ informants in ethnomusicology. Cook is especially scathing on forms of advocacy for new music which positively valorise its alleged resistance to consumer culture (breaching Godwin’s Law in a hyperbolic passage in which he compares the view of one protagonist expressing such a position, Anne Boissière to a tradition of thought which ‘fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”‘ (p. 257)). But in terms of advocacy based on value judgement, after surveying in particular the relationship between this and analysis at the hands of the likes of Heinrich Schenker, Carl Dahlhaus and Rudolph Réti, Cook delivers the following pronouncement, ending in a formulation reminiscent of Leopold Ranke’s view of the job of history:
It seems to me that the idea of the musical academy acting as some kind of quality control, with musicologists or theorists issuing admission tickets to a canonic hall of fame, is way past its sell-by date, and that the prerequisite for a more open-minded approach to musical culture than musicology has traditionally had is a more modest intellectual ambition: to register, to describe, to establish the facts as they are. (p. 259)
While taking Cook’s views seriously (though not his outrageous slur on Boissière), I disagree with this rejection of value judgement and advocacy in general, reject his caricature of ‘musicologists and theorists’, and find it hard to imagine such a view coming from a practising musician, who would have a different personal relationship with the music in question. (I also do not believe there is such a thing as ‘establishing the facts as they are’, somehow free from the interpretive lens of the academic who is doing that (though this is no sense to take a post-modern ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to relatively objective factual data), but that is a different matter.)
It is hard to see why one would wish to spend a very considerable amount of time or energy on studying music if one did not care about it, or at least find it fascinating. The exceptions might be if one has a passion for history, sociology or another discipline distinct from music, so one studies the music to learn more about the wider history, the society from which it comes, and so on. I have spent some fair amount of time considering what I consider minor and now-forgotten works in various traditions, not in order to uncover ‘lost masterpieces’ (though it is of course a bonus if one finds something really striking in such research), but rather to gain a wider understanding of the context in which other music which I do value was developed, or to comprehend better developments in style, genre, and so on.
Nonetheless, there are basic principles developed in the humanities which I believe continue to be as essential as ever in musical scholarship: maintaining a key awareness of the range of data available and its limitations, not ignoring inconvenient findings if they might interfere with a priori theories or conclusions, familiarising oneself and engaging critically with existing secondary literature and recognising the relationship of one’s own work to what has already been achieved, understanding that the assumptions, tastes, priorities and values of other times and places may be quite different from one’s own, and most importantly here, maintaining a degree of healthy critical distance from one’s subject, so as to be able to assess and interpret it in a more balanced manner, while avoiding the types of highly subjective judgements which rely essentially on whim rather than more substantive and detailed appraisal. For music, I would add the avoidance of pronouncing on music without having heard it (or, where music has been published but either never-yet performed, or no recording exists, studying the score as the next-best thing). Furthermore, in general I believe it is better if scholars are at least guarded before making blatant political pronouncements which assume the reader share their own particular ideological convictions. If the arguments and interpretations are made in a rigorous and well-substantiated fashion, the reader is perfectly capable of drawing their own political conclusions.
I do enjoy immensely reading scholarly work on music (of all types and traditions) by those who clearly have a passion for it, including on occasions when I might not share the same aesthetic view as the writer, at least initially. I may hear some music which makes an impression, but not always be clear to myself why this is the case, and am always interested to know more of its workings in order to understand more about my own reaction. Amongst large bodies of work, such as Marenzio’s Madrigals, Haydn’s Symphonies, Schubert’s songs or Miles Davis’s albums, I am interested in reading those intimately familiar with such bodies of work and their arguments for why some parts of these oeuvres might be especially distinctive. I (and I am sure a great many others) am perfectly capable of still having my own view after such reading, and of course there has always been lively debate amongst different people about aesthetic matters; Cook’s view of such advocacy as a type of hegemony appears to assume that readers will inevitably have an opinion imposed on them, and presents them as essentially passive. By contrast, as I have argued in a review-article on his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), I can find Cook’s stand-offish approach clinical and alienating, objectifying and removing the life from music by treating it like a laboratory specimen. It is more ‘open-minded’ to allow for advocacy, at least of certain types, than to attempt to have it banished from scholarly writing, as Cook seems to wish.
However, to give the range of Cook’s arguments the proper consideration they deserve, some of the more questionable types of advocacy within musicology he identifies do certainly exist. The line dividing some supposedly scholarly writing on popular music from that which might appear in a ‘fanzine’ is not always carefully drawn (not least because popular music scholars are not so often well-versed in the types of more detailed perspectives on aesthetics which can be found elsewhere, including in some popular music journalism or other non-academic writing). In and outside of ethnomusicology, ‘activist’ writing can be an unedifying spectacle, eschewing attempts at scholarly balance and critical distance in favour of bald assertion of political points, to an extent that I would question whether some such work really qualifies as scholarship. And, as I said earlier, there are forms of advocacy that rest either on the simple fact that such a view is commonplace, and has been over an extended period, or the assumption that there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees (an approach which unfortunately permeates such composer monographs as that of Lois Fitch on Brian Ferneyhough, of Pirkko Moisala on Kaija Saariaho).
The works of Fitch and Moisala may be amongst the most egregious examples, but they epitomise a wider phenomenon within writing on new music, one of the areas mentioned by Cook (about which I have been writing much for publications recently, and on which I am preparing a longer blog post). A very large number of practitioners working in research positions in UK academic departments are involved with new music, including myself. In this context I have found the dichotomy between advocacy and criticism to be most acute.
While a few practitioners also produce written and other outputs (as I do, some of which have no direct or obvious link to my own practice), others are focused primarily or exclusively on their practice. More to the point, they frequently also operate in external non-academic arenas, sites dominated by different values, attitudes and behaviours than one might find in academia. Practitioners need to network with those with the power to grant them commissions, performances, exhibits, etc., have to advocate strongly for their own work and sometimes that of others, and often cannot risk expressing views or perspectives which might give grounds for any scepticism about their work, or which those with whom they network might not favour. I have certainly found this when attempting to engage some in the new music world with issues of the development of that world in the aftermath of fascism, or the more specific example of the patronage of new music by the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung, bearing in mind that the Siemens family fortune rests at least in part on their having run slave labour camps at Auschwitz, then spent 30 years trying to fight against compensation claims from survivors – not what those who have received or wish to receive a major grant from this organisation, or their acolytes, wish to hear. Often they are part of wider networks of practitioners whose collective reputation impacts upon their own individual one, and so need to be staunch advocates for these networks.
Amongst practitioners operating in more highly commercialised environments (compared to that of new music, which can at least occasionally entertain some more critical discourse within its ranks), in which total loyalty to an employer, an outfit, a brand, etc., can be utterly essential, and anything else might have one ostracised, these issues may be even more acute. Some of those working in academic departments who are also pursuing commercial work can be mystified when they encounter the type of critical discourse pursued by musicologists, uncomprehending of why one would engage in the type of thinking which may be at cross-purposes with what might help one gain work. Similarly, study of the music industries/business can take radically different forms depending upon whether one is seeking to understand their workings, operations, priorities in the manner of a scholar, or trying to look at (or teach others) how best to succeed in them. Nonetheless, there are important figures with commercial connections who can move between such discourses.
In many institutions and conferences, I have sat through a range of events billed as research presentations by composers, improvisers, sound artists, other performers, and so on, which amount essentially to a form of self-advocacy or even self-promotion, somewhat akin to ‘artists’ statements’. The practitioner will describe what they do, why they chose to embark on a particular project, how they set about this, often with some liberal number of references both to other admired artists to whose work this practitioner links their own, and to certain intellectual figures (Gilles Deleuze or Bruno Latour are often a safe bet, and increasingly a few writings by anthropologist Tim Ingold, though rarely his highly critical articles on ethnography or soundscape), as well as to key concepts from philosophy and other fields (not always presented in a manner which accords with their recognised and established meanings) as part of the process of situating one’s work within a research culture. This is distinct from autoethnography (which, for reasons too intricate to go into here, but which I have argued elsewhere, I do think is often quite deeply linked to the framing of practice-as-research), which is not simply autobiography, but at best entails a critical perspective on the self and the practice in which they are engaged. Occasionally one will encounter a bit of critical self-reflection in such research presentations, entertaining the possibility that it entailed failures as well as successes, but I have found this increasingly rare, as if the practitioners are loath to engage in something which might make themselves seem vulnerable.
Of course there is an important place for this type of self-advocacy, but the values and attitudes it embodies appear at cross-purposes with those of more disinterested humanities scholarship. For this reason, situating practice-research (for this type of presentation invariably relates to such a thing) within the humanities may be a category error.
It would also be unfair to associate this type of advocacy and lack of critique exclusively with practitioners. I have certainly encountered it frequently in some presentations on popular music (in the manner mentioned above), certain types of ethnography dominated by simple representation of the views of the informants, with little critical interpretation (to such an extent that some such work can appear hagiographic, as I have argued in a variety of cases – see my two essays on ethnography in this volume), or those soundscape studies which consist primarily of listing a range of sounds to be found in a particular location, whereby the simple fact of the sounds being variegated appears to suffice for interpretation.
Some of those can rub off on those working in academia who are not themselves practitioners, but write about contemporary work (this was a recurrent subject in the 2017 conference at the University of Surrey on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’, where it was fascinating to find how many scholars working on different artistic disciplines had experienced the same issues, conflicts of interests, and so on). Many will share faculties with practitioners, sometimes working in fields related to those about which they write. In my experience, such practitioners, especially those who believe their fields to be beleaguered or little recognised in a wider social context (as with many in new music, not least electroacoustic music), can respond very negatively and even in a hostile fashion that the sort of critical writing which might do something other than simply flatter the type of work they do. While this can only be conjecture/speculation, I do believe that this type of ‘peer pressure’ often has an impact on scholars, leading them to avoid more difficult critical questions, aesthetic or otherwise. But this compromises the depth and integrity of their research, and in my view has led to scholarly writing on new music remaining a very uneven field compared to those dealing with other areas, where will not interact almost on a daily basis with individuals deeply invested in such fields.
This is the type of major conflict which can result from the integration of practitioners in academia without some grounding in wider critical scholarly discourse and the values of the humanities. It can also be damaging for teaching, if one might otherwise not necessarily deem the work of a practitioner colleague itself sufficiently significant to be included in a survey of a field of work, or might wish to unpack some of the aesthetic and ideological assumptions behind their work or those of the circles with which they are involved. Here we do see advocacy and critique drastically at cross-purposes.
But I do not believe this has to be the case, so long as there is recognition the distinct qualities and types of expertise of scholars and practitioners, neither conflates these nor tries to establish a rigid hierarchy, and respects the independent perspectives and academic freedom of each. With teaching, this can be more complicated; here I would aver that on balance scholars might hold back from engaging in practical teaching, and practitioners from scholarly teaching, if they do not have considerable experience of their own in such fields. Teleological views of music history which just happen to feature the work of the composer teaching them as the telos, academic study of performance trends and cultures which are centered around the work of the performer teaching them, or abstract and dry directives on how music should be played on the basis of academic knowledge, by those who have little experience themselves of the process of performing music, are not often good practice in these respective areas.
Music-making can exist without musicology (indeed has done or continues to do so in various times and places), but musicology not engaged with music or music-making which still remains a living concern at least to some (which in no sense means any prioritisation of contemporary work), or has the potential to be so, will invite, not unreasonably, charges of ‘ivory-towerism’. Academics talking solely to each other is not always encouraging, nor an insistence that their own work is only valorised by those other academics (usually within the same sub-discipline, and often sharing a range of ideological assumptions) who by virtue of their very position can never really be more disinterested judges of the wider societal or other value of such work.
It is in my view essential that academic musicians are engaged with music and music-making existing outside of academia, without in the process sacrificing their scholarly independence. This is not about adopting advocacy wholesale, but recognising a world in which this does play a very major role, developing perspectives on this which are not blindly dismissive, but also demanding that practitioners equally recognise that academics may not share the assumptions appertaining to the particular (and sometimes small) cultural or social milieu inhabited by some practitioners.
I have recently been contacted by a former senior member of staff at Chetham’s in the 1980s, who had regular contact with the then-headmaster, John Vallins. With their permission, I am publishing here a letter sent to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and also to the current joint heads of the school. It offers a trenchantly expressed and troubling view of the (lack of) leadership under Vallins’ tenure. Following his lacklustre performance at the hearings, I believe a statement is needed from Vallins following the publication of the inquiry’s report.
Thank you for the heads-up about the publication of the IICSA Report. The Report has an appalling vividness and intensity for me because, as you probably know, Chets was an important part of my life in the late eighties. It seems to me to be thorough and accurate and it provides some helpful recommendations. If well heeded it will be a useful milestone along our long and tortuous journey to a safer world for children and young people.
I would have liked the Report to have emphasised more clearly, though, the all-important role of leaders in forming and shaping the ethos of these school communities. We can assume that there will always be a propensity for abuse in our communities; unfortunately this is a fact of life. Effective leaders know this and can protect (safeguard) us all from our wilder tendencies and channel our energies positively. For residential school communities this is the single most important factor in determining the health of the community.
The Chets referred to in the Report was a fertile substrate for abuse of every kind: there was a total absence of what we would consider to be “normal” and essential school practice, procedures, attitudes and accountabilities. All attempts to modernise and introduce elements of professional normality were blocked and ridiculed. The Head liked to think of himself as an inspiring figurehead, someone who, as he often said, was “effortlessly superior” to everyone else; his decisions were driven by ignorance, snobbery, foolish self-interest and prejudice… or more often simply avoided. If things became difficult he would become petulant and throw a temper tantrum. There was no “leadership” climate: rather a climate of often malevolent dysfunction with interpersonal suspicion, tension and frustration. It is no wonder that in such a climate certain adults with what we might call “borderline” personalities, and who in a well run school might have been contained or sacked as soon as problems arose, abandoned any pretence of decency and developed their appalling habits of abusive behaviour, over many years in some cases, as set out in the Report.
In my view, the Report gives insufficient emphasis to this all-important causative element, namely the Head’s abject, utter and contemptible failure to lead, and by his behaviour, his creation of the conditions in which abuse could flourish. That, to me, was criminal negligence and I will make this point to the authors of the Report.
I cannot tell you how heartening it is for me, having experienced the madness of the past and having struggled in vain to improve things at Chetham’s, to see the two of you providing the inspired, courageous, ethical and confident leadership that every one of those young people deserves and needs. I know full well how hard, how personally invasive, it can be, 24/7, and I am reassured and inspired to see your innovative, visionary and determined approach to shared leadership of this wonderful community. ****,**** and I are confident that we made the best choice for her, thanks to you.
If ever there is anything I or **** can do to assist in any way, please do not hesitate to ask.
With warm regards and bon courage!