The Tory Government distrusts the arts and humanities – but what about academics?

The cover story of today’s Sunday Times indicates a plan on the part of the UK government to reduce fees in higher education.

Sunday Times 18-2-18

According to the story:

He [Education Secretary Damian Hinds] revealed that future fees would be determined by “a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy”.

Ministers expect this to lead to dramatic cuts in fees for arts and social science courses, which universities have expanded because they are the cheapest to run and make them the most money.

Under the plans, universities will be told to offer: more two-year degrees; sandwich courses, where students spend time in the workplace; and “commuter courses”, where they live at home to cut costs.

Various television interviews today with Hinds and also with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah have done nothing to dispel such suggestions, though precise details are vague. A statement from the Prime Minister is promised tomorrow, though it is unclear how much has yet been decided, how much will be the outcome of a review.

There are various outcomes I could envisage, few of them likely to be positive for those working in the arts and humanities in British universities. The items on the following list are not mutually exclusive.

  1. A re-introduction of the pre-1992 divide (though ministers will be at pains to stress how different it is), whereby the sector will once again divide into a series of universities in the traditional sense (probably the Russell Group and a handful of others) and others offering more vocational and technical courses (most of those which became universities after 1992 and maybe some others as well). This will be spun as entailing a new level of support for technical education, with the second group of institutions intended to be akin to German Technische Universitäten. The latter institutions will receive little or no support for research, and most lecturers will be on teaching-only contracts. The government money thus saved will be used to finance a cut in some tuition fees.
  2. A push for many degrees, especially in the arts and humanities, to be able to be undertaken in two years, delivered by a mixture of lecturers on teaching-only contracts (whose increased teaching burden would leave little time for any research), casual academic staff without permanent contracts, and postgraduates.
  3. A limitation of practically all government research money to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, with nothing for the arts and the humanities, though the social sciences may keep some.
  4. A variant of 3, in which all or the bulk of arts and humanities research money is only available to those in Russell Group institutions.
  5. The introduction of a direct link between ’employability’ (as measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework) and the level of fees which an institution is allowed to set.
  6. An insistence that the majority of academic jobs be teaching only. Having a research position will then become one of the most sought-after things in HE.

Most of these measures, or some variants thereof, will be designed to enable the government to cut fees without having to pledge any more money for HE. I believe strongly in the abolition of tuition fees and re-installment of maintenance grants for all, but realise at present this is unlikely to be on the cards (even with a Labour government which pledges to abolish fees, but will be hit by the dire economic consequences of a Brexit they are doing little to stop).

The outlook for the arts is bleak, and especially for degrees in performing arts such as music, theatre, dance, or various types of spatial arts, which include a practical element requiring significant resources for appropriate facilities. Already, as a result of the introduction of the Ebacc (English Baccalaureate), there was a five-fold fall in the numbers of pupils taking arts subjects at secondary school in 2015-16, while other evidence points to a special fall in take-up and provision of music. When combined with other likely problems relating both to recruitment and access to research funding following Brexit, this will put various music and other arts departments in a highly precarious position, as some already are.

The arguments for the employment benefits of arts and humanities degrees have been rehearsed often, as for example in response to politicians such as former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan dismissing arts and humanities subjects and urging pupils at school to concentrate on STEM if they want a better career. I do not wish to dwell on these further here, not because I do not believe them to be true, but because I resent the debate always being framed in such narrowly utilitarian terms. Rather, I want to ask why many – including some in academia – have lost such faith in the value of the study of the arts and humanities as an end in itself, and are submitting to terms of reference which will always place them at a disadvantage?

In many continental European universities, there are battles to save rare subjects in the face of declining student numbers, but at least some measures are being taken to prevent these from extinction. It would be nice to imagine that the UK government (or the opposition) were backing similar measures, but evidence of that is in short supply. I wonder in how many other developed countries one would find a vice-chancellor of a major university declaring the irrelevance of the study of sixth-century history, as the late Patrick Johnston, of Queen’s University Belfast, did in 2016. I refuse to accept that the study of early medieval (or ancient) history is somehow automatically less ‘relevant’ than modern history – or that the study of Guillaume de Machaut is less ‘relevant’ than that of Madonna. Any measure of the relevance of history in proportion to the temporal remoteness of the period in question ultimately undermines the case for the study of history at all. There has also been, in the UK, a marked decline in foreign language degrees, no doubt linked to a decline in their study in schools. It is dispiriting and more than a little arrogant when those in Britain no longer feel it important to engage with any of the world’s many other languages.

There have been, and will be for a long time, heated debates about the value to individuals and society as a whole of various types of art, and especially regarding their purported humanising or civilising potential. Overwhelming evidence exists from the fascist era that individuals with a love for and firm schooling in high culture could still commit crimes against humanity. At the very least, this renders automatic assumptions of such culture’s civilising potential impossible to maintain. But one need not subscribe to the views of Matthew Arnold (themselves more complex and nuanced than sometimes credited) in order to believe that a society with only minimal support for and education in the arts and humanities to be one which is deeply impoverished.

So what should be included in teaching and research of these disciplines? I would argue that at the very least, students should be encouraged to explore not only the forms of culture that they would encounter anyhow, but also those of different times and places, not to mention less familiar or commercially successful genres. Such culture can benefit from being examined in its social, historical, geographical, political, ideological contexts, without in any way neglecting its specifics and technical details, which are not merely the by-product of such contexts. The relationships between different cultural forms (between music and theatre, between theatre and performance art, between literature and film, just to give a tiny few obvious examples) are also greatly important, as are the relationships between culture and the intellectual environment of its time/place/social milieu, the societal functions of various cultural forms, the nature and demographics of those who partake of such culture and their responses (i.e. the study of reception), the economic situation of cultural production, the role of changing technology, and much else.

Yet so often I encounter the dismissal of many of these things, including by some academics, in ways which mirror government ideologies, despite being presented in somewhat different language. In the case of my own field, music: government emphasis on STEM subjects is mirrored in increasing emphasis on technological skills in music over other varieties of musical study and musicianship (and in the case of research, favour bestowed upon anything which has a contemporary technological dimension), as if musical study is somehow more acceptable when it has some of the veneer of science. Positions become available for the teaching of commercial music, or functional music for another commercial medium (such as popular film or video games), more frequently than those requiring expertise in a historical field, or in musical cultures outside of the Western world. I was recently informed by one Professor of Theatre that historical study of that discipline has all but disappeared except in Russell Group institutions (though am interested to hear of any evidence to the contrary).

I accept that some of this is pragmatic, borne of desperate attempts to recruit and maintain students who have less and less of a foundation in music and the arts at primary and secondary school than ever. But I am dismayed at how many embrace rather than tolerate this situation. There was a time when the study of popular music (see this debate from two years ago on this blog) could reasonably be argued to inject increased diversity into rather rigid curricula. At best, this can entail the study of many different popular musics from various times and places, critical interrogation of the concept of the ‘popular’, consideration of various social contexts, means of production and distribution, not to mention relationship to other cultural traditions, languages, and so on. But when it means limiting a good deal of musical study to Anglo-American popular music of a restricted period (essentially that music which is already familiar to students), then the net effect for diversity is negative rather than positive. Ethnomusicologists (see another debate on this blog) eager to decry not only relatively traditional approaches to teaching Western art music, but also older approaches to their own disciplines which involved Western scholars spending considerable amounts of time in remote places, absorbing as best as they can the language, cultural practices, and so on, might reflect upon how precarious their own discipline might become if there is less of a place or welcoming environment for those interested in such things. The more musical study becomes simply about the application of a selection of methods derived from sociology or cultural anthropology to fields of musical activity close to home, the less reason there will be for institutions to support music as a separate field of study. The sociology and anthropology of music are vitally important sub-disciplines with multiple intellectual trajectories of their own, but if those engaged with them are housed solely in sociology and anthropology departments, they will then be in direct competition for students, funding and positions with the rest of those fields.

More widely, in many fields of cultural studies, especially the populist varieties which, as I have argued in some recent papers, are rooted in the work of the Birmingham School and especially that of Stuart Hall, commercial utility is equated with relevance, musical engagement is viewed as just another consumer activity, and research can amount either to conducting focus groups, or dressing up familiar informal chat about popular culture with a modicum of jargon. Any deeper critical engagement with popular taste, the latter empirically measured at one particular time and place, is dismissed as elitism. This amounts in many ways to an eschewal of arts education itself, and can lead to rather patronising ways of patting students and ‘the masses’ on the back simply for having the tastes they do, rather than encouraging them to venture beyond their comfort zones.

I do believe, after working in HE for 15 years (in multiple institutions), that most students those who study arts subjects at university do so after having read some literature, heard or played some music, seen and acted in some theatre, looked at or produced some visual art, etc., and care about these and want to know more. They often seek help and guidance to navigate an overwhelming range of available culture, and also learn technical skills so as to be able to engage with this more incisively. Certainly not all will become equally drawn to all the manifold areas of study, methods, or emphases involved, nor could any realistically study all in detail in the limited time available for an undergraduate degree (for which I think we should be looking towards four- rather than two-year degrees, ideally) which is why we offer some degree of elective options. But I do believe it is important, indeed vital, that educators attempt to broaden students’ horizons, encourage them to explore beyond what they already know, and also consider the familiar from unfamiliar angles. Those educators, with years of experience in their own fields, are in a position to facilitate all of this. Not through spoon-feeding, teaching-to-test, or rote learning, but introducing what to students will be a plurality new ideas, new cultural forms, new contexts, and encouraging them to consider these critically.

I also realise this type of humanistic approach may not be attractive or feasible to some potential students, and this situation is unlikely to change without wider changes in primary and secondary education. With this in mind, I would not rule out questions as to  whether the removal of the pre-1992 divide has been wholly beneficial, and whether a need to maintain the pretence that all degree courses are roughly equal just entails a race to the bottom for all. But technical colleges are not universities in the traditional sense, and it benefits nowhere to pretend otherwise, as argued well by Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton:

Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Neither, however, can there be a university in the full sense of the word when the humanities exist in isolation from other disciplines. The quickest way of devaluing these subjects – short of disposing of them altogether – is to reduce them to an agreeable bonus. Real men study law and engineering, while ideas and values are for sissies. The humanities should constitute the core of any university worth the name. The study of history and philosophy, accompanied by some acquaintance with art and literature, should be for lawyers and engineers as well as for those who study in arts faculties.

I would not like to live in a narrow, utilitarian, technocratic society in which there is little wider societal interest in other times and places, in all the questions which the humanities raise, or one in which such interest and knowledge is limited to the upper echelons of society. Nor a society in which art has no meaning other than as a form of commercial entertainment, as some right-wing politicians in the UK have been urging for many years (see the notorious 1990 Westminster speech by then-Tory MP Terry Dicks, and the spirited and witty response by then-Labour MP Tony Banks). And I doubt that this type of society would be attractive to many, especially not those working in arts and humanities fields. But if many of them are not prepared to defend the ideals of the arts and humanities, acting instead as advocates for narrowly conceived notions of social ‘relevance’, defined in terms of being contemporary, technocratic, and generally restricted to the place and milieu of them and/or their students, what are the chances of any meaningful opposition to governments who would happily slash most of these?

Universities, the arts and the humanities, are not just means to ends but valuable in their own right. Cultures and cultural histories are far from unblemished things, to say the least, but it would still be negligent in the extreme to let them fade into oblivion. And allowing students to retreat into the comfort zone of the already-familiar is damaging to global citizenship. In some ways, those who advocate such an approach to education are already doing the Brexiteers’ work for them.




Gilmore Girls, Notationgate, and Harvardgate

In light of the recent heated discussions following Charlotte Gill’s article on musical notation and theory, which have come to be known as #notationgate, and the wider discussions about the removal of music theory as a core subject at Harvard University, I was very happy when my wife Lindsay pointed out to me that this subject actually featured in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a 2016 sequel to the 2000-7 series. In this section, journalist Rory Gilmore goes back to her private school, and tells the assembled crowd the following:

We all have our proclivities, right? The things we loved before Chilton, the subjects we wanted to study. I had them. Literature, history. And I absorbed them. But with time, I discovered that it’s the stealth subjects, the ones I discovered while I was here, that really expanded my mind the most. I love music. So I thought, ‘I’ll take a music course. Composition and theory. How hard could it be?’ Well…. [laughs]….it was a struggle. Let’s put it that way. I had this notion that somehow my extensive familiarity with Nick Cave, and Radiohead, and a smattering of Stravinsky destined me for success. So I’ll never forget the day that I realized my composition class required composing. But I did it. I composed the melody, I added the harmonies, I drew those treble and bass clefs, I wrote those whole notes, those half notes, those quarter notes, those rest stops, and while you’ll never witness a public performance of my composition, because of that experience, I can see music when I hear it. I only ever heard it before. And I’ll always be grateful for that.

Music into Words – Morley College, Sunday February 12th, from 1:15 pm


This coming Sunday, February 12th, will see a mini-conference, the second major event organised by Music into Words, whose declared aim is ‘to bring together all kinds of writers about classical music – journalists, musicians, academics, bloggers and music lovers – to share their perspectives and discuss common issues in a positive, inclusive and friendly environment.’

This event will take place at The Holst Room, Morley College, London SE1, from 1:15 to 5 pm on Sunday, February 12th, 2017, and I will be on the panel. Other participants are world-leading pianist Peter Donohoe, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times Neil Fisher, writer, musician and researcher Katy Hamilton, music researcher and journalist Leah Broad, conductor Tom Hammond, clarinettist, composer and creative producer Kate Romano, and writer Adrian Ainsworth. It will be hosted by Frances Wilson (whose blog Cross-Eyed Pianist is here – you can read my interview with Frances here) and founder and editor of, Simon Brackenborough. Tickets, which are selling fast, can be booked here. Fees are £10 + £0.75 booking fee through Early Bird, £5 + £0.58 booking fee for students.

The order of events will be as follows:

1.15pm – arrival/registration and welcome

1.30 – Panel 1:
Speakers: Katy Hamilton, Adrian Ainsworth & Tom Hammond
with Peter Donohoe and Neil Fisher

Followed by audience Q&A/discussion

3.00 – Tea break (the refectory Morley College will be open for refreshments)

3.30 – Panel 2:
Speakers: Ian Pace, Kate Romano, Leah Broad

Followed by audience Q&A/discussion

5pm – event ends.

My own contribution will concentrate on the thorny questions of the differences between journalistic and scholarly writing, and in particular the use of jargon (as distinct from technically precise or conceptually rich language), and its use for a play of power in order to mystify academic writing and render it artificially inaccessible. My short talk will be accompanied with hand-outs giving some examples of the phenomenon I describe, and of writing for which these categories are ambiguous. This is designed to encourage a wider discussion on the purpose of writing on music carried out in an academic context, drawing on my own parallel experiences as musicologist, professional musician, and blogger on music and other subjects. Some of my earlier writings on this blog relate to this subject, including my posts on scholarship and new music, the need for musicology to distinguish itself from promotional writing, the question of how much some musicologists are vested in their subject, whether it is acceptable for scholarly writing on music to draw upon monolingual sources, and on deskilling and musical education.

I am very pleased to have been invited to take part in this mini-conference, and hope many will come to lend their input to what is sure to be a fascinating series of debates.



The Verdi that inspired Finnissy

This coming Thursday, December 1st, will see the ninth concert in my series of the complete piano works of Michael Finnissy, at Deptford Town Hall, Goldsmith’s College, beginning at 18:00 (with a 15-minute talk between myself and the composer, followed by the performance immediately afterwards). This cycle, which I have recorded in its earlier incarnation, and which was considerably expanded (to around twice the original duration, and four books referencing every Verdi opera) in 2004-2005, is one for which I hold a special affection, as Book 1 was the first music of Finnissy I ever learned.

As earlier with Finnissy’s Gershwin Arrangements, I thought some would find it informative to be able to listen to the Verdi originals before the concert, so I have made this blog containing all of the numbers/sections in question, in the same order as they appear in the Finnissy cycle.

I hope many people will be able to come along on Thursday, and bring others!

Book 1

No. 1: Aria: ‘Sciagatura!  a questo lido ricercai l’amante infido!’, Oberto (Act 2)


(From 2:00:50)

No. 2: Trio: ‘Bella speranza in vero’, Un Giorno di Regno (Act 1)


No. 3: Chorus: ‘Il maledetto non ha fratelli’, Nabucco (Part 2)


No. 4: Chorus:‘Fra tante sciagure…’, I Lombardi (Act 3)


(From 1:33:24)

No. 5: Septet with Chorus: ‘Vedi come il buon vegliardo…’, Ernani (Part 1)


No. 6:Choral Barcarolle: ‘Tace il vento, è queta l’onda’, I Due Foscari (Act 3)


(From 1:15:34)

No. 7: Aria: ‘So che per via di triboli’, Giovanna d’Arco (Act 1)


(from 4:35)

No. 8: Duet: ‘Il pianto…l’angoscia…di lean mi priva’, Alzira (Act 2)


(From 1:03:27)

No. 9: Aria: ‘Mentre gonfiarsi l’Anima’, Attila (Act 1)


Book 2

No. 10: Duetto: ‘Vanitosi! Che abietti e dormenti’, Attila (Prologo)


(From 22:35)

No. 11: Coro: ‘Patria oppressa! Il dolce nome…’, Macbeth (Act 4, 1847 version)


No. 12: Duetto: ‘Qual mare, qual terra….’, I masnadieri (Parte Terza)


No. 13: Récit et Duo: ‘Non, ce bruit, ce ne’est rien…’, Jérusalem (Act 1)


(From 3:38)

No. 14: Romanza: ‘Non so le tetre immagini’, Il Corsaro (Act 1)


No. 15: Inno di Vittoria: ‘Dall’Alpi a Caridi echeggi vittoria!’, La Battaglia di Legnano (Act 4)


(From 1:44:16)

No. 16: Scena e Quartetto: ‘Rea fucina d’empie frodi…’, Luisa Miller (Act 2)


(From 1:24:08)

No. 17: Duetto: ‘Opposto é il calle che in avvenire’, Stiffelio (Act 3)


(From 1:30:00)

No. 18: Scena e Coro: ‘Vendetta del pazzo! Contr’esso un rancore’, Rigoletto (Act 1)


(From 9:25)

Book 3

No. 19: Canzone: ‘La donna è mobile’, Rigoletto (Act 3)


No. 20: Duo: ‘Vivra! Contende il giubilo’, Il Trovatore (Act 4, scene 1)


(From 4:48)

No. 21: Duetto: ‘È nulla, sai?’, La Traviata (Act 3)


(From 2:20:40)

No. 22: Boléro: ‘Merci, jeunes amies, d’un souvenir si doux!’, Les vêpres siciliennes (Act 5, scene 2)


No. 23: Scena: ‘Tradimento!’, Simon Boccanegra (Finale dell’Atto Primo, 1857 version)


(if this link does not work, simply do a search for Verdi Boccanegra Tradimento on Spotify)

No. 24: Coro, Burrasca e Finale: ‘Allora che gl’anni’, Aroldo (Act 4); ‘Vi fu in Palestina’, Aroldo (Finale Act 1)




(From 1:56:54 for ‘Allora che gl’anni’, 40:32 for ‘Vi fu in Palestina’)

No. 25: Stretta: ‘Ogni cura si doni al diletto’, Un Ballo di Maschera (Act 1)


No. 26: Romanza: ‘Me pellegrina ed orfano’, La Forza del Destino (Act 1)


No. 27: Aria: (a) ‘Trionfai! Securi alfino’ (1847), (b) ‘La luce langue’ (1864-5), Macbeth (Act 2)



Book 4

No. 28: Chorus: ‘S’allontanarono! N’accozzeremo’, Macbeth (Act 1)



No. 29: (a) Duo: ‘Restez! Auprès de ma personne’ (Acte II, Tableau II); (b) Duo: ‘J’ai tout compris’ (Acte IV, Tableau I), Don Carlos (1866-7)





(From 1:05)


No. 30: Romanza: ‘O cieli azzuri…’, Aida (Act 3)


No. 31: String Quartet: (a) III. Prestissimo, (b) IV. Scherzo fuga



No. 32: Aria: ‘Cielo, pietoso, rendila’, Simon Boccanegra (Act 2)


No. 33: Aria: ‘Tu che la vanità conoscesti’, Don Carlo (Act 5)


No. 34: (a) Ballet No. 3: ‘Chanson Grecque’ (Cancone Greca)’; (b) Scena: ‘Una gran nube turba’, Otello (Act 3, Finale)


(From 1:47)


(From 1:31:30)

No. 35: ‘Brava! Quelle corna saranno la mio gioia!’, Falstaff (Act 3, Part 1)


(From 1:41:25)

No. 36: ‘Requiem Aeternam’, Missa da Requiem



On Canons (and teaching Le Sacre du Printemps)

I have been meaning for a while to post something detailed in my ‘Musicological Observations’ on the vexed subject of musical ‘canons’. A debate will take place tomorrow (Wednesday 23rd November, 2016) at City, University of London, on the subject, which I unfortunately have to miss, as I am away for a concert and conference in Lisbon. Having for a long period taught canonical (and also less canonical) music , and also lectured on the subject of canons in general, I naturally have plenty of thoughts and would have liked to contribute; I suggested most of the texts below (a list which is generally weighted in an anti-canonical direction, which is not my personal view). Nonetheless, the organiser of the debate, Christine Dysers, was very keen when I suggested I might blog something in advance of the debate, including some sceptical thoughts on the abstract. So here goes….

The abstract for this debate reads as follows:

“Dead White Men? Who Needs Musical Canons?”

What is the nature and purpose of musical canons? And what are the systems of authority that they sustain? Do they tend to act, as Jim Samson has suggested, ‘as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power’ (Samson 2001:7; from ‘Canon (iii)’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (2nd edn). Volume 5:6-7. London: Macmillan).

In this debate, speakers will explore notions of canonicity, particularly in relation to Euro-American art music. They will examine the reasons for the emergence of (largely composedly) canons and ask whether they still serve a useful purpose in the 21st Century.

Among other issues, speakers will consider the relations of power that underpin processes of canon-formation and ask whose ‘voices’ become marginalised, excluded or even forgotten. This will include, but not be restricted to, consideration of gender dimensions of canon-formation and how processes of inclusion/exclusion reflect underlying values, and ultimately ideas about the very ontology of ‘music’ itself. Such debates also raise questions about the role of canons in shaping categories of creative agency and hierarchies between ‘composer’, ‘performer’ and (often presented as rather passive) ‘listener’.

Suggested preparatory reading:

  1. Charles Altieri, ‘An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon’, Critical Inquiry 10/1 (Canons) (September 1983), pp. 37-60 – on literature, but one of the most notable essays which is more sympathetic to canons –
  1. Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds), Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992). In particular Bergeron, ‘Prologue: Disciplining Music’, pp. 1-9, and Randel, ‘The Canons in the Musicological Toolbox’, pp. 10-22.
  1. John Butt, ‘What is a ‘Musical Work’? Reflections on the origins of the ‘work concept’ in western art music’, in Concepts of Music and Copyright: How Music Perceives Itself and How Copyright Perceives Music, ed. Andreas Rahmatian (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015), pp. 1-22.
  1. Joseph Kerman, ‘A Few Canonic Variations’, Critical Inquiry 10/1 (Canons) (September 1983), pp. 107-125 – one of the first major essays on canon issues in a musical context, and still an extremely important text on the subject –
  2. Simon Zagorski-Thomas, ‘Dead White Composers’ – full text, link to recording, and a series of responses can be read here –


I find this abstract very deeply problematic in many ways. It is permeated throughout with a great many assumptions presented as if established facts, when they should actually be hypotheses for critical engagement, as if to try and bracket out any type of perspective which is at odds with those assumptions.

The first paragraph is almost a model of leading questions:

What is the nature and purpose of musical canons? And what are the systems of authority that they sustain? Do they tend to act, as Jim Samson has suggested, ‘as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power’ (Samson 2001:7; from ‘Canon (iii)’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (2nd edn). Volume 5:6-7. London: Macmillan).  

Who has determined a priori that canons do indeed serve to sustain systems of authority? Whether indeed this is the case needs to be answered, and substantiated either way, rather than assumed. And, for that matter, how is a ‘canon’ defined (below I argue that fundamentally it is a necessary teaching tool)? Is it the set of composers who are regularly taught in particular institutions, or those who have sustained a regular listenership over a period of time, or those seen as epitomising particular strains of musical ‘progress’ through advanced and innovative compositional techniques, or indeed groups of musicians other than composers? Those questions may be said to fall within the issues of the ‘nature and purpose of musical canons’, but a less leading second question would be something along the lines of ‘Do canons serve to sustain other systems of authority, and if so, how?’

Samson is a subtle and nuanced thinker, who has written perceptively on (relatively) canonical composers such as Chopin and Liszt, and whose PhD dissertation, later published as a book, Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality 1900-1920 (London: Dent, 1977) , focused on mostly canonical figures associated with the period of ‘transition’ at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I went back to the context of this quote (I do not have a hard copy of New Grove to hand, but see no reason to believe that the online version is different). Here is the actual quote:

The canon has been viewed increasingly as an instrument of exclusion, one which legitimates and reinforces the identities and values of those who exercise cultural power. In particular, challenges have issued from Marxist, feminist and post-colonial approaches to art, where it is argued that class, gender and race have been factors in the inclusion of some and the marginalization of others. 

Samson does not ‘suggest’ this view, he points out that certain types of thinkers in particular have thought this – a view is being attributed to him which he is attributing to others. In this sense, the abstract misrepresents Samson’s balanced entry on the subject. I would draw attention to his second paragraph, which offers a wider (and global) perspective, and provides a good starting point for discussion:

Music sociologists such as Walter Wiora have demonstrated that certain differentiations and hierarchies are common to the musical cultures of virtually all social communities; in short, such concepts as Ars Nova, Ars Subtilior and Ars Classica are by no means unique to western European traditions. Perhaps the most extreme formulation of an Ars Classica would be the small handful of pieces comprising the traditional solo shakuhachi repertory of Japan, where the canon stands as an image of timeless perfection in sharp contrast to the contemporary world. But even in performance- and genre-orientated musical cultures such as those of sub-Saharan Africa, or the sub- and counter-cultures of North American and British teenagers since the 1960s, there has been a tendency to privilege particular repertories as canonic. Embedded in this privilege is a sense of the ahistorical, and essentially disinterested, qualities of these repertories, as against their more temporal, functional and contingent qualities. A canon, in other words, tends to promote the autonomy character, rather than the commodity character, of musical works. For some critics, the very existence of canons – their independence from changing fashions – is enough to demonstrate that aesthetic value can only be understood in an essentialist way, something we perceive intuitively, but (since it transcends conceptual thought) are unable to explain or even describe.

To present a range of different views on the role of canons might be more in the spirit of a debate.

Moving to the next paragraph:

In this debate, speakers will explore notions of canonicity, particularly in relation to Euro-American art music. They will examine the reasons for the emergence of (largely composedly) canons and ask whether they still serve a useful purpose in the 21st Century. 

Phrases like ‘speakers will explore’ or ‘they will examine’ sound almost like diktats; more to the point, why single out Euro-American art music? Why not consider, say, the Great American Songbook, or some other repertoire of musical ‘standards’, which could be argued to serve an equally canonical purpose? Or how about looking at what I would argue is the canonical status of various popular musicians or bands – the Beatles, Madonna, and others – within popular music studies in higher education? Or at aspects of Asian musical traditions which some would argue are also canonical in the manner described in the Samson paragraph above?

Then the third paragraph:

Among other issues, speakers will consider the relations of power that underpin processes of canon-formation and ask whose ‘voices’ become marginalised, excluded or even forgotten. This will include, but not be restricted to, consideration of gender dimensions of canon-formation and how processes of inclusion/exclusion reflect underlying values, and ultimately ideas about the very ontology of ‘music’ itself. Such debates also raise questions about the role of canons in shaping categories of creative agency and hierarchies between ‘composer’, ‘performer’ and (often presented as rather passive) ‘listener’.  

Once again we encounter many hypotheses presented as if established facts (and more diktats: ‘speakers will consider…’). Many of these loaded statements could be reframed as critical questions: for example, do canons indeed serve a function of marginalisation and exclusion?. I would ask whether, not how, processes of inclusion/exclusion reflect underlying values, whether canon-formation is a gendered process, and whether they shape the very categories of creative agency and hierarchies mentioned above. As I have recently criticised in some blurb accompanying a lavishly funded research project, this reads like an attempt to skip the difficult questions and present conclusions without doing the research first.

So, on to some thoughts of my own on the basic debate. Proper responses to the texts in questions (and others) will have to wait for a later post. I started thinking in a more sustained fashion about issues of canons first in the context of reading widely about the teaching of literature, then during my time as a Research Fellow at Southampton University, where the ‘new musicology’ was strong (I started off very sceptical, but was determined to familiarise myself with this work properly, then for a period believed that these musicologists were raising some important questions, even if I did not agree with many of their answers; nowadays I wonder if that engagement was a bit of waste of time and energy). There I taught a module on ‘Classical Music and Society’, which looked at various explicitly social/political paradigms for engaging with Western classical music, going back as far as Plato, and including a fair amount of Adorno, requiring students to actually read some of the original writings rather than simply rely upon secondary literature, though a critical approach was strongly urged (whilst basically sympathetic to the broad outlook of Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School, I have many serious problems with this work, not least in terms of the reliance upon Freudian psychoanalysis). Some of the best essays which resulted were quite scathing about Adorno – though also some excellent ones were quite sympathetic.

Anyhow, in a lecture on Adorno’s views on modernism and mass culture, I contrasted the compositional technique and aesthetics on display in Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and in a range of works from Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘free atonal’ period. I did not expect many students to be familiar with Schoenberg, but was quite shocked when only a tiny number had at that stage heard Le Sacre. This made engagement with the issues Adorno raised all the harder.

I determined from that point that if I had the opportunity to teach a broad-based music history module, I wanted to ensure that the students taking it would at least have encountered this work – and numerous others. Not that I would demand any of them necessarily view it or other works positively (as Simon Zagorski-Thomas erroneously suggests is the primary purpose of musical education in Russell Group universities), but they had to have heard it properly in order to be able to develop any type of view.

Now Le Sacre remains a controversial work, about which I have many reservations, despite having played the two-piano/four-hand version a number of times with two duo partners, and listened to countless performances and recordings, and studied the work in some depth. But by so many criteria – in terms of lasting place in the repertoire and long-term popularity, influence on other composers, strong relationship to many other aesthetic and ideological currents, or revolutionising of musical language – Le Sacre is a vastly important work. Petrouchka runs it close (and possibly some later Stravinsky works as well). But I have yet to hear a convincing argument that, say, the contemporary works of Aleksander Glazunov or Nikolay Roslavets, or those of Max Reger, Albert Roussel, Pietro Mascagni after Cavalleria Rusticana, or Amy Beach, can be considered of equal significance by any measure (which is not to deny that their work can be of interest). But if comparing the work of Claude Debussy, Schoenberg, Aleksander Skryabin, Giacomo Puccini, Serge Rachmaninoff, and others, such an argument may be plausible. Or with respect to the work of leading jazz musicians – King Oliver, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin Armstrong, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton, James Reece Europe, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, and many others active a decade after the premiere of Le Sacre. That is simply to allow for a diverse range of tendencies, all perceived to be of palpable importance, not to dissolve any judgement of value or indeed exclude the possibility of canon.

In short I want to argue for a reasonably broad and inclusive canon, if the term is viewed as a teaching tool. Anyone who has taught music history knows that the time available for teaching is finite, and so making choices of what to include, and what not, is inevitable (as with any approach to wider history). Students entering higher education in music often have only very limited exposure to a wider range of music, and need both encouragement and some direction in this respect; the only way to avoid making choices and establishing hierarchies is to give up on doing this. The moment one decides, when teaching Western classical music, to spend more time on Ludwig van Beethoven than Carl Stamitz, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than Antonio Salieri, or Frédéric Chopin than Friedrich Kalkbrenner, one has established hierarchies of value.

When I got to teach my broad historical module – which covered the period 1848-2001 and I ran for six years – I attempted some breadth of approach (which made the module more than a little intense), incorporating various urban popular musics as much as classical traditions, including a substantial component on the histories of jazz, blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, and many diverse popular traditions from the 1960s onwards, as well as much wider consideration of the possible historical, social and political dimensions of music-making and musical life during the period in question, which necessitated incorporation of a fair amount of wider history as well, working under the assumption that many students would not be that familiar with such events as the revolutions of 1848, or the shifting allegiances and nationalistic rivalries between the major powers in the period leading up to World War One. But this was still a course in music history, not a wider history course in which music was just one of many possible cultural tangents (the first time I taught it, I realised it was in danger of going in this direction, and I modified it accordingly in subsequent years), and so I needed to include a fair amount of actual music, music which could be listened to, not just read about, so that entailed compositions or recorded performances (the latter is obviously not an option for those teaching earlier musical periods, a very straightforward explanation for why musical composition, for which texts survive, has tended to be quite central in such teaching). So this necessitated some choices relating to inclusion/exclusion – one priority was not to give disproportionate attention to Austro-German nineteenth century compositional traditions, and consider more seriously those traditions existing in particular in France, Italy and Russia; another was, as mentioned before, to give proper space to non-‘classical’ traditions. There were numerous other criteria I attempted in this context, not least of which was to present plenty of music for which a link with the wider context was relatively easy to comprehend – but with hindsight, I think this was a very dubious criterion, and which artificially loaded the attempts to ask students to look critically at the relationship between music and history/society, not take some assumed relationship as a given. There are a great many positions which have been adopted by musicologists and music historians, from a staunch defence of autonomous musical development to a thoroughly deterministic view; I have my own convictions in this respect, but the point is not to preach these, but try to help students to be able to shape their own in an intelligent and well-informed manner.

Someone in another department commented to me quite recently of his astonishment that he encountered students who had never heard Brahms’s Second Symphony (said with some special emphasis as is characteristic of those with a strong grounding in a tradition, and for whom not knowing this would be like a literary student never having read or seen Macbeth). I replied that if I encountered a few students who had already heard a work like that before it was presented in a class, I would feel lucky. But that situation is now to be expected, and in my view musical higher education can do a lot worse than try to introduce students to a lot of music which lecturers, audiences, and many musicians over an extended period have found remarkable. Not in order to dictate to those students that they must feel the same way, but to expose them to work which has been found by a significant community to be of historical and aesthetic significance, and invite them to form their own view – which may be heretical.

So it is on this basis that I believe ‘canons’ are valid, indeed essential, teaching tools for musical history – whether dealing with histories of composers, performers or even institutions – if students are to be given some help and guidance in terms of studying sounding music.  I refuse to accept the singular use of the term ‘the canon’, for this is not, and has never been, fixed when one considers different times and places. Mikhail Glinka and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov occupy hallowed places within Russian musical life and history, so far as I can ascertain (not being a Russian speaker, so dependent upon secondary literature), but this view is only relatively rarely shared elsewhere. The canonical status of Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt has never been unambiguous, whilst that of Puccini and Rachmaninoff, as compared to the composers of the Second Viennese School, continues to be the source of healthy and robust debate. The place of Italian opera within wider canons of music from the eighteenth century onwards varies; I would also note, though, that within operatic history, Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti are often canonised, but Giovanni Pacini and Saverio Mercadante are generally viewed as less central, to my mind an entirely natural decision. In terms of pre-Baroque or post-1945 repertoires, there is even less consensus. I for one find it very difficult to accept the particular choices of key works from the last few decades in the ninth edition of  A History of Western Music by Donald Grout and Claude Palisca, revised by J. Peter Burkholder (New York: Norton, 2014).

I offer the following hypotheses (some of which I have no time to substantiate here) for critical discussion:

Aesthetics are more than a footnote to political ideologies, and canons reflect aesthetics in ways which cannot be reduced to the exercise of power.

There is not a singular canon, but a shifting body of musical compositions which are canonised to differing extents depending upon time and place.

Sometimes the process of canonisation is simply a reflection of what may not be a hugely controversial view – that not all music is equally worthy of sustained attention.

Canonical processes exist in many different fields of music, not just Euro-American art music in the form of compositions. 

The most casual of listeners exhibit tastes and thus aesthetic priorities. These are not necessarily perceived as solely personal matters of no significance to anyone else, or else they would not be discussed with others. 

It is impossible to teach any type of historical approach to musical composition and performance without including some examples, excluding others. 

Many canonical decisions are made for expediency, and in order to provide a manageable but relatively broad picture of a time and/or place in musical history. 

The broad-based attacks on canons, almost always focused exclusively on Western art music composition, are often a proxy for an attack on the teaching of this repertoire at all.

A very different view can be found in an essay of Philip V. Bohlman:

To the extent that musicologists concerned largely with the traditions of Western art music were content with a singular canon- any singular canon that took a European-American concert tradition as a given – they were excluding musics, peoples, and cultures. They were, in effect, using the process of disciplining to cover up the racism, colonialism, and sexism that underlie many of the singular canons of the West. They bought into these “-isms” just as surely as they coopted an “-ology.” Canons formed from “Great Men” and “Great Music” forged virtually unassailable categories of self and Other, one to discipline and reduce to singularity, the other to bellitle and impugn. Canon was determined not so much by what it was as by what it was not. It was not the musics of women or people of color; it was not musics that belonged to other cultures and worldviews; it was not forms of expression that resisted authority or insisted that music could empower politics.

(Philip Bohlman, ‘Epilogue: Musics and Canons’, in Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons, edited Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 198).


I can only characterise the above as a rant: musical canons are presented in language which might seem too extreme if describing Jimmy Savile or Slobodan Milosevic, and stops just short of indicting these in terms of complicity with widespread global dispossession and even genocide. But the paragraph is in no sense substantiated, and amounts to a series of rhetorical assertions. Furthermore, I would like to know more about how Bohlman thinks that music has indeed ’empowered politics’ in any significant number of cases, or why he thinks music is best rendered secondary to other uses, basically reiterating the rhetoric associated with Gebrauchsmusik in the 1920s and 1930s.

It is certainly true that Western classical music (and a fair amount of Western popular musics too) has at least until recently predominantly been made by white men, in part because the opportunities available to them did not exist to anything like the same extent for other groups. Complaints, for example, about lack of staging of operas by women composers make little sense without suggestions of works (other than Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers and a small few others) which might feasibly be produced and would be acceptable in musical terms to a lot of existing opera audiences; relatively few women before recent decades were given the opportunities to write operas (which were rarely produced in isolation, but much more often in response to specific commissions). Only a shift to a greater amount of contemporary work in opera houses – which would create a new set of problems – opens up the possibility of a significantly increased representation of women composers. It is also hardly surprising that music produced in the Western world, at least in Europe, was only infrequently produced by ‘people of colour’ during times (basically, before the fall of many of the major European empires) when such people formed much smaller communities in European societies.

This is not to make light of the fact that opportunities for artistic participation have been strongly weighted in favour of certain groups in Western society over a long period (and, for that matter, in many non-Western societies as well). But the same was true of access to politics and government, the diplomatic service, banking, and very much else – the historical study of the figures who obtained and exercised power in these fields in Western societies before the twentieth century will be in large measure a history of white men. To arrive at a blanket decision on the workings of those fields on the basis of that information alone would be massively crude; the alternative is to spend time studying these histories before arriving at prognoses. To employ an ad hominem fallacy to dismiss vast bodies of creative work simply on account of the gender, class, ethnicity or other demographic factors relating to those who had the opportunities to produce, is myopic in the extreme, and smacks of a narrow politics of resentment. This is not a mistake that would have been made by Friedrich Engels, or the Hungarian Marxist intellectual György Lukács, both of whom wrote eloquently on the immense value of literary work by avowedly non-socialist thinkers such as Honore de Balzac, Sir Walter Scott, or Thomas Mann, in obviously political as well as aesthetic terms. The true believers in establishment values were those who – when nonetheless good writers who were prepared to allow their scenarios and characters to take on ‘lives of their own’- could, according to these thinkers, reveal more about the inner contradictions damaging these milieux, sometimes more so than some writers who identified with the left.

I would personally argue that the ubiquity of Anglo-American popular music (much of which interests me very much, and which as mentioned before I have taught extensively) is a far more hegemonic force in many societies than any sort of classical ‘canon’, which plays an increasingly marginal role in large numbers of people’s lives, especially in the face of cuts to and dumbing-down of musical education at many levels. As I argued (more than a little ironically!) in my response to Simon Zagorski-Thomas:

Personally, I can rarely go into a bar without being barraged by Japanese gagaku music, cannot go shopping without a constant stream of Stockhausen, Barraqué, mid-period Xenakis, or just sometimes examples of both French and Rumanian musique spectrale, piped over the loudspeakers, whilst when I jump into a taxi cab in most countries, I can be sure that there will be no escape from music of the Italian trecento. This is not to mention the cars going past blaring out the darkest Bach cantatas, or the endlessly predictable torrents of Weimar modernism which the builders will always put on the radio. 

In a world which has recently witnessed the vote for Brexit, the election of Trump, and the growth of the far right in European politics, not to mention horrifying revelations of the abuse of children in a great many fields of life, a degree of economic collapse since the 2007 crash which does not appear to be recovering (especially in various Mediterranean countries), a wholly unholy civil war in Syria between the equally brutal forces of the Assad government and ISIS, the approaching 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and subsequent dispossession and humiliation of the native population there, with no signs of change, ominous possibilities for catastrophic climate change, and so on, making such a big deal and assigning such loaded political associations to whether the teaching of music favours some types of music more than others seems a trivial, even narcissistic concern of musicians and musicologists. It may enable some to gain some political capital and concomitant advancement in the profession, but it is hard to see much more significance – indeed this may be a convenient substitute for any other political engagement, some of it directly related to academics’ professional lives, whether demonstrating against massive increases in student fees, or supporting and participating in industrial action in opposition to such things as the gender pay-gap. Perhaps energies could also be better spent elsewhere – such as playing a small but important role in trying to help some reasonable politicians get elected, rather than leaving the ground open to grotesque populist demagogues? This would be a much more laudable aim than fighting to ensure far fewer music students ever hear Le Sacre.

I wanted to end with some brilliant quotes from Charles Rosen, much better words than I could produce:

The essential paradox of a canon, however—and we need to emphasize this repeatedly—is that a tradition is often most successfully sustained by those who appear to be trying to attack or to destroy it. It was Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky who gave new life to the Western musical tradition while seeming to undermine its very foundations. As Proust wrote, “The great innovators are the only true classics and form a continuous series. The imitators of the classics, in their finest moments, only procure for us a pleasure of erudition and taste that has no great value.” Any canon of works or laws that forms the basis of a culture or a society is subject to continuous reinterpretation and to change, enlargements, and contractions, but to be effective it is evident that it must retain a sense of identity—it must, in fact, resist change and reinterpretation and yield to them reluctantly and with difficulty. A tradition’s sense of identity is dependent on the way it is transmitted, on what kind of access to it is made available to the members of the society concerned, and on whether the transmission makes the canon too rigid or too yielding.

(Charles Rosen, ‘Culture on the Market’ (2003), in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 17-18).


Access to what are considered the great works of painting and sculpture is adequately provided by museums. They stand as a formidable barrier to those who would like to get rid of a canon, or radically alter its character (generally replacing dead white males with candidates selected by ideology, politics, or sexual preference). As I have said, a canon properly resists change, although, in the end, it must change if it is to exert a living influence. However, an abrupt and radical alteration is generally impossible to achieve: the old values spring immediately back into place once the new ideology’s back is turned. Introducing new figures into the canon is therefore, with few exceptions, a slow process, the additions generally reaching public acceptance only after decades of professional interest.

The example of two poets, John Donne and Friedrich Hölderlin, often said to have been discovered at the end of the nineteenth century after years of neglect, can show that the pathos of neglect and rediscovery is largely a myth. The present fame of Donne is popularly supposed to be owing to the influence of T. S. Eliot, but he was greatly admired by Coleridge and influenced Browning; and editions of his poetry were available throughout the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most influential academic critic of the time, George Saintsbury, wrote of Donne as “always possessing, in actual presence or near suggestion, a poetical quality that no English poet has ever surpassed.” The criticism of Eliot brought Donne to the attention of a larger public, but he had never lacked admirers. Hölderlin is said to have been rescued from complete obscurity at the same time as Donne by the interest of two great poets, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George, but earlier Robert Schumann wrote music inspired by his work, and Brahms set his verses to music. The fame of both Donne and Hölderlin increased greatly at the opening of the twentieth century, but these additions to the canon were made possible by the earlier existence of a continuously sustained admiration.

The efficacy of a tradition, however, can be weakened by swamping it with a host of minor figures, and we have seen this happen in our time. The fashion for Baroque music has awakened the interest of recording companies and concert societies, and the novelty of an unknown figure has a brief commercial interest. A brilliant essay by Theodor Adorno mocked the way the taste for Baroque style reduced Bach to the status of Telemann, obliterated the difference between the extraordinary and the conventional. Concerts of music by Locatelli, Albinoni, or Graun are bearable only for those music lovers for whom period style is more important than quality.

(Ibid. pp. 20-21).

Fifth Concert of Finnissy Piano Music – Piano Concertos, Gershwins – and Lecture on Experimental Music

On Tuesday September 27th, 2016, at City University, beginning at 18:00, I will be giving the fifth concert in my series of the piano music of Michael Finnissy, to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday. This will contain Finnissy’s two piano concertos for solo piano, nos. 4 and 6, and both books of his Gershwin Arrangements (about which more can be found on this separate blog post, including links for all of the original Gershwin songs). The concert will be in two parts, an early evening concert at 18:00, and a main concert at 19:30. Places can be reserved here. The programmes are as follows:


Michael Finnissy at 70: The Piano Works (5)
Performance Space, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

Concert 1: 18:00
Piano Concerto No. 6 for solo piano (1980-81)
Love is here to stay (first version) (1975-76)
Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88)

Finnissy - from Piano Concerto No. 6

(From Piano Concerto No. 6 (1980-81))

Finnissy - from Fidgety Feet

(from ‘Fidgety feet’, Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88))


Concert 2: 19:30
Please pay some attention to me (1998)
More Gershwin (1989-90)
Piano Concerto No. 4 for solo piano (1978, rev. 1996)

Finnissy - from Piano Concerto No. 4

(from Piano Concerto No. 4 (1978, rev. 1996))

The Piano Concerto No. 4 is by some measure Finnissy’s most manically virtuosic piece, and this is a rare opportunity to hear it live. I gave the world premiere of the revised version in my 1996 series of the piano work and have since performed it many times and recorded it (as I have the Piano Concerto No. 6 and all of the Gershwin Arrangements).

There will be further Finnissy concerts in London, Egham and Oxford in October, November and December, details of which I hope to confirm very soon, including a performance of the complete (four-book) Verdi Transcriptions , and the complete cycle The History of Photography in Sound, as part of a wider day at City University of events relating to Finnissy’s work.


Furthermore, on Wednesday October 12th, at 17:30 I will be giving a lecture postponed from earlier this year (due to industrial action).

Lecture:Ideological Constructions of ‘Experimental Music’ and Anglo-American Nationalism in the Historiography of post-1945 Music’
Room AG09, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

Abstract: Since the publication of John Cage’s essay ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’ of 1955, a dichotomy has informed a good deal of historiography of new music between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ musics, especially following the publication of Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond in 1974. Nyman very clearly portrayed ‘experimental music’ as a fundamentally Anglo-American phenomenon, allowing almost no European composers into his pantheon. This opposition was itself foreshadowed in various writings of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and since the appearance of Nyman’s book has remained a prominent ideological construct, even feeding into other oppositions such as ‘high/low’ music, ‘uptown/downtown’ or ‘modern/postmodern’.

In this paper, I trace the history and development of the concept of ‘experimental’ music in several types of literature published in Europe and North America from the 1950s until the present day: general histories of music of this period, histories of American music, the writings of Cage, Feldman and Wolff, secondary literature on these figures, and other work dealing specifically with ‘experimental music’. I argue that from the late 1950s onwards, there was such a large amount of cross-fertilisation between composers on either side of the Atlantic that the opposition is unsustainable, but its perpetuation served an ideological and nationalistic purpose. Above all, by portraying a group of British and American composers as occupying an aesthetic space at an insurmountable remove from a (simplistic) picture of a European ‘avant-garde’, this facilitated special pleading on the part of the former for programming and other purposes. Even as some writers have grudgingly conceded that a small few continental European composers might also be considered ‘experimental’, they have constructed them as utterly on the margins of a perceived European mainstream to such an extent as to question their very ‘Europeanness’. Remarkably, this opposition has also been continued by various European writers, especially in Germany.

I also argue that the rhetoric of ‘experimental music’ has some roots in mythologies of the US frontier which have informed constructions of its canonical musicians. In place of this, I stress the strong European (as well as American and Asian) provenance of Cage’s thought and work (via that of Duchamp, futurism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Joyce, Satie, Varèse, Webern and Meister Eckhardt), and suggest that Feldman’s romantic, anti-rational individualism can be viewed not only in a clear lineage from nineteenth century European aesthetic thought (not least in Russia), but also in stark opposition to Cage’s anti-subjectivism. And finally I paraphrase Cage’s preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975) to argue that the music of the U.S.A. should be seen as just one part of the musical world, no more, no less.


I hope all with an interest in this subject will want to come along.

Deskilling and Musical Education – Response to Arnold Whittall’s 80th Birthday Celebrations

The following article was printed in the Society for Music Analysis Newsletter 2015. I reproduce it with just a few small modifications here.


To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse the tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline.

During the contributions to Arnold Whittall’s 80th birthday colloquium at King’s College, London, Jonathan Cross linked two events: Arnold’s appointment as the first Professor of Theory and Analysis in 1982, and later in the decade the purported expansion of musicology to incorporate issues of gender, sexuality and race, methodologies from sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and elsewhere, and greater focus on popular musics and other traditions outside of Western art music. Some of the latter phenomena are associated with the so-called ‘new musicology’ in the US and its slightly milder counterpart ‘critical musicology’ in the UK.

All of these were portrayed by Cross as a general broadening of the discipline, a welcome infusion of increased diversity of subject and methodology, a natural step forward. But an academic field now in large measure antipathetic to claims of musical autonomy seems nonetheless to claim a fair degree of autonomy for its own trajectory, in a way I find implausible and even disingenuous. There may be some common determinants underlying all these apparent broadenings of the field, and both systematic analysis and the new musicology have been opposed by conservatives such as Peter Williams. Nonetheless, the wider ideologies underlying these disparate developments can be quite antagonistic, as was certainly made clear in an important interview between Arnold and Jonathan Dunsby published in Music Analysis (Vol. 14, No. 2/3 (Jul. – Oct., 1995), pp. 131-139) for the former’s 60th birthday.

The ‘new musicology’ is frequently argued to have been inaugurated with the publication of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) (UK title Musicology). Despite being replete with factual errors, Kerman’s appeal to a musicological inferiority complex, a field presented as trailing far behind other disciplines in terms of adoption of ideas from phenomenology, post-structuralism, feminism and more, not to mention his negative view of both musical modernism and historically-informed performance, as well as residual anti-German prejudice, would prove very influential.

But Kerman was also the author of the polemical ‘How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get out’ (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 1980), pp. 331-331), absolutely at odds with what Arnold was advocating and aiming for at around the same time. The contexts for these two musicologists were very different: Kerman was responding to a particular North American situation (though he was shameless in extrapolating universal pronouncements from a rather provincial perspective), with a much starker distinction between ‘historians’ and ‘theorists’ than in the UK. In the US, a heavily mediated rendition of Schenker’s work had flowered since 1931 through his student Hans Weisse, and in the early post-war era through other students Felix Salzer and Oswald Jonas, whilst other intense analytical approaches had been developed by Rudolph Réti, Milton Babbitt, Allen Forte, George Perle, David Lewin and others. In the UK, on the other hand, as Arnold would note in a 1980 article (‘Musicology in Great Britain since 1945. III. Analysis’, Acta Musicologica, Vol. 52, Fasc. 1 (Jan. – Jun. 1980), pp. 57-62), systematic analysis had made little advance, despite a gauntlet having been set down by Ian Bent’s advocacy at the Congress of the International Musicological Society in 1972. What did exist – through some interest in Réti’s work, the ‘functional analysis’ of Hans Keller, and a smattering of other work from Alan Walker, David Osmond Smith and a few others – was occasional and patchy, and this was undoubtedly a major factor in Arnold’s co- founding, in 1982, the journal Music Analysis together with Jonathan Dunsby, with whom he would author what remains the leading general textbook on analysis in English six years later. The subject has continued to grow and develop, with excellent work from UK academics, such as Matthew Riley’s studies on Haydn and Mozart, Michael Spitzer’s work on the affective function of gesture, Nicholas Cook on analysis and performance, or Allan Moore’s work on rock, but it is difficult in 2015 to see analysis as having attained a central position in musicology as might have seemed possible in 1982. Various musicologists who assumed prominent positions from the 1990s onwards have made no secret of their disdain for this sub-discipline, sometimes inspired by American writings of a similar ideological persuasion.

Assumptions of autonomous development of the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s are belied by issues such as the wider politics of education from the Thatcher years onwards. These entailed cuts in musical provision in schools, the 1992 removal of the formal distinction between universities and polytechnics, and then expansion of student numbers. After a doubling of the number of students (in all subjects) between 1963 and 1970 following the Robbins Report, numbers remained static until the late 1980s, when during a period of around a decade student numbers practically doubled from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997, then rose steadily to peak at 49% in 2011. This move from an elite to a mass educational system occurred in parallel with attempts to erase the very real differences in preparedness and background amongst students at different types of institutions, with a net levelling effect upon many.

Much of the new embrace of popular music had less to do with genuine diversification than an enforced denial of very real differences of various forms of musical production’s relationship to the marketplace. One of Thatcher’s neoliberal mantras, ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) was echoed by many a musicologist scornful of any possible value in state-subsidised musical activity thus able to operate with a degree of autonomy from shortterm market utility. As subsidy is rare or minimal in the US, this ideology was convenient for American musicologists eager to claim some radical credentials through valorisation of the commercial whilst still appearing patriotic; it was disappointing to see so much of this ideology imported wholesale in the UK, a country with a modest level of subsidy for music compared to its continental European counterparts.

I had always thought of music, at a tertiary level, as a highly skilled discipline for those who have already developed and refined musicianship prior to entering university. This belief may reflect a background in a specialist music school in which, if nothing else, the teaching of fundamental musical skills was rigorous and thorough. Nonetheless, the importance of not allowing music slip to become a ‘soft’ subject requiring only nominal prior skills (and, as with much work in the realm of cultural studies, not requiring any particular artistic disciplinary expertise or extended knowledge) is to me self-evident. But with declining primary and secondary musical educational provision, frequently the extent of such prior skills amongst students can be quite elementary.

Furthermore, following the trebling of tuition fees in 2012 and other measures removing caps on recruitment, higher education has become a more ruthlessly competitive market with institutions fighting to attract and keep students. These various factors provide the context from which we should view the growth in many departments of types of popular music studies, film music studies, cultural studies, and some varieties of ethnomusicology, in which engagement with sounding music is a secondary or even non-existent concern. Such focus enables the production of modules which can be undertaken by those students with limited prior skills, but militates against musical analysis in particular.

We now have a situation, unthinkable a few decades ago, where some senior academics – even at professorial level – have no ability to read any type of musical notation. These academics (not to mention some of their students who will go onto teach at primary and secondary levels) may only perpetuate and exacerbate this situation for their own students. Similarly, a number of sub-disciplines of academic music can now be undertaken without linguistic skills, or much background in history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy and so on. Students have always had uneven or patchy backgrounds in these respects, but the will to help them improve upon this has also declined in various institutions. Expansion of musical study to encompass wider ranges of music and disciplinary approaches is certainly to be welcomed when this entails the cultivation of equal degrees of expertise and methodological refinement and critical acumen, but not necessarily when these are simply a means for attracting and holding onto less able students.

In short, these developments in musical higher education have seen a well-meaning liberal quest for inclusivity amount in practice to a pseudo-egalitarian de-skilling of a profession. In order to build upon the legacy bequeathed above all by Arnold for the support of specialised and rigorous analytical skills, we cannot ignore this issue any longer.