The departure from academia of a brilliant scholar unafraid to critique the relationship of culture to capitalPosted: October 17, 2021
For several months, various friends have known about the upcoming departure of Professor J.P.E. Harper-Scott from academia, at the age of 43, to take up a job in the Civil Service. To friends he is Paul, and I will refer to him as that from this point, as I am mourning the loss to the profession not only of a brilliant scholar, but also a close personal friend.
Paul published a ‘farewell blog post’, which has been widely shared on social media. In this, without engaging in any targeted critiques of individual scholars or groups, he identified the heart of the problem with which he no longer wanted to be continuously embroiled: an approach to scholarship which preaches dogma and allows for no dissent from orthodoxies, in drastic opposition to the spirit of critical thought which was what drew him to academia in the first place. He exemplified this with a stark statement (an imaginary one, but definitely of a type with which many will be familiar) about how, on account of the interactions between nineteenth-century music and imperial societies, ‘The classical music canon must be decolonised’ (my emphasis). He followed this with a considerably more nuanced view compared to this dogmatic utterance. Then he noted the necessary consequence which would likely be drawn of the dogmatic statement: that music departments stop teaching Beethoven and Wagner, rather than the alternative he suggests by which such music can be used as a means of understanding more about the social contexts from which they emerged. Then he went on to describe his own sense of joy and liberation upon discovering a lot of such music, coming from a background in which it played almost no part. There was a real sense of sadness in the portrayal of a situation in many quarters in which anyone who dissents from this type of ideology is subject to personalised attacks, shaming, no-platforming, and attempts to have them removed from their posts, and how the dogmatic approach mirrors that found in media, politics and business. This was not a world in which he any longer wished to operate.
At first, Paul’s blog post provoked a lot of expressions of sadness and regret, combined with various individuals imploring musicology to look at itself and how it has got to this state. I certainly recognise quite a bit of what he diagnoses, though some of this is more prominent in the US than the UK, and in the UK it is found in certain quarters much more than others. There is a pronounced divide within the UK sector between the ‘post-92’ institutions (former polytechnics before 1992) which in large measure (with a few exceptions) focus on more vocational teaching of Music Technology, Music Business, Musical Theatre, Popular Music Performance, and so on, and the Russell Group (the elite group of research-intensive institutions) in which there is a greater emphasis on a humanistic approach to the study of a wide historical range of music, ethnomusicology, critical academic study of music and its contexts, analysis, performance practice, and so on. Various institutions fall in neither of these groups, and often combine aspects of both approaches. Many of the Russell Group and mid-ranking institutions have taken on aspects of popular music (notoriously Oxford University’s recent introduction of a part-core module in Global Hip-Hop), music business, in some cases music technology, and so on, integrating these into wider curricula, but there has been less traffic in the other direction. Few outside of conservatoires would be able to complete their studies without at least facing some critical questions about the reasons for a canonical repertoire and especially the role of popular music and non-Western traditions relative to this, but many studying popular music can limit their focus exclusively to such music, usually overwhelmingly from the English-speaking world and from a relatively limited historical period, To engage with older historical popular traditions, or those around the world less deeply indebted to the Anglo-American model, is far more rare. Even within part of the sector, there are more than a few ethnomusicologists who heap down criticism on most things related to Western art musics, its traditions, and associated scholarship, often in deeply impugning, accusatory and denunciatory ways (there are some examples of this in this article, which can be found together with the companion piece ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography’ in this book) , but react with horror at even the slightest critique towards their own field. And, as for example expressed in relatively mild form in this exchange following a quite denunciatory radio talk by one professor on ‘Dead White Composers’, there are plenty in academia who will happily dismiss centuries of heterogenous traditions with a few tawdry adjectives (or, in many cases, claiming it to do little more than embody feudal, imperial, racist, misogynistic values – all true in some ways, and of other musics, but far from a nuanced picture) whilst making extravagantly liberatory or emancipatory claims for their own favoured popular musics.
But some of the responses on social media to Paul’s resignation post, including some from academics, exemplified a lot of what he was diagnosing. While a few respectfully questioned some of the arguments made and whether he represented the reality appropriately, others were extremely aggressive, personalised, espousing contempt bordering on hatred, righteous, while others flagrantly misrepresented what Paul’s article actually said, or attempted to undermine his words on ad hominem grounds. Others even claimed that the article caused ‘hurt’, and then felt obliged to denounce it and him as a result. There were no personalised attacks on anyone or any groups in the article, but this was not true of the responses, some of which seemed calculated to cause maximum hurt. This was the unedifying spectacle of a pile-on, and it was deeply disappointing to see some scholars, perhaps the types Paul had in mind when he spoke of those claimed to be ‘generally quite well-meaning’ but not ‘brave’, feel pressure to join in the mobbing.
Paul was clearly a brilliant scholar from the outset. His early work on Elgar (in Edward Elgar: Modernist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), drawing upon his PhD; Elgar: An Extraordinary Life (London: ABRSM, 2007); and the edited collection with Julian Rushton, Elgar Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)) made a very significant contribution to a wider body of scholarship drawing the concept of musical ‘modernism’ more broadly than hitherto and highlighting, with the aid of various analytical tools, the ways in which musical strategies, aesthetics, processes, structures and more left an indelible mark even on work not usually considered together with the most radical figures.
He became a full Professor at the relatively early age of his late 30s, and continued to be highly productive, having to his name by the time of leaving academia five sole-authored monographs, several edited volumes, and countless articles and book chapters (an unfinished book comparing neo-Riemannian analysis with Hugo Riemann’s own work will be completed by another scholar). He was also a highly respected, though far from uncritical, mentor to many junior scholars.
The most important aspect of his work, in my view, was his endless exploration of the relationship between music, musicology, and capital. In this he came from a position on the radical left, drawing upon Marxist models of capital, and was very critical of what he saw as much more casual work in which ‘capitalism’ is essentially viewed as synonymous with any system in which goods are bought and sold. Paul, by contrast, examined what he perceived as the ideological complicity of various strands of thinking fashioned as progressive, democratic, anti-elitist, etc., with the interests of capital. His position was made clear in the Preface to The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012):
But as well as critiquing scholarship on modernism in particular, the book constitutes a broader ideological critique of all manifestations of what could variously be termed postmodern, pluralist, or as Badiou would say democratic materialist musicology. I will therefore make a Leftist case for the possibility of an emancipatory politics that is diametrically opposed to the relativist–cultural sweep of (the bulk of: emphatically not all of) modern ethnomusicology, empirical musicology, musicology of pop music, and all other crypto-capitalist work on what are called musics, by showing how modernist music (on this new dialectical definition) helps to advance our most pressing present concern – to escape the horrors of the present by imagining the transformations of a coming society. (p. xiv)
The following passage indicates his type of argument at full flow:
[Richard] Taruskin’s second suggestion is that ‘cast[ing] aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity’. Let us turn this on its head and insist instead that concealing the moral consequence of obfuscated xenophobic–capitalist aesthetic preferences at the start of the twenty-first century is an obscenity. What Taruskin is doing, of course, is to deny the emancipatory potential of classical music – not because he particularly disbelieves it, I expect (he wrote a five-volume history of it, after all) – but because it pleases him argumentatively to assault other musicologists. In parallel, he wants to say that popular classical music is more valuable – which is to say (as he does) more consumable – in the world of late capitalism. But this aesthetic decision in favour of the popular over the recondite has ethical consequences that Taruskin neither admits nor – as is clear from his gruff rejection of any possible link between aesthetic choice and ethical act – would acknowledge. But capitalism has subjects, subjects who are exploited, limited, have their life’s possibilities minutely circumscribed and controlled. Declaring in favour of the popular is fine as far as it goes, but doing so while denying any possibility of a truth-statement that exceeds the definition of the merely popular (that is, ideologically normative) with the intention of tearing apart the prevailing understanding of the situation – which for us today is global neoliberal capitalism – is simultaneously to declare in favour of the dictatorship of Capital, and the impossibility of its revolutionary destruction.
More extended such arguments can be found in the longer passage from this book, a link to which I posted earlier. In general, a good deal of his strongest critiques were directed at a particular Anglo-American ideological viewpoint, now common within musicology, which can loosely be associated with postmodernism, a position of high relativism which remains oblivious to the influence of capital. For myself, while I can no longer subscribe wholly to the type of Marxist thinking with which I once had some sympathies (and especially not the neo-Maoism of Alain Badiou), and believe the relationship between popular art and capital to be somewhat more complex, I do have other sympathies with various of his arguments from a social democratic perspective, one which rejects the untethered reign of market forces and the commodity principle as a fundamental measure of the value of everything, but believes in regulation, a strong public sector (including in the realms of education and culture), progressive taxation and public spending, and also which does not necessarily view the ‘state’ always as a malign and hegemonic force, but one which can equally act as a democratic check on the power of capital and big business. In this post, I have collated some examples of musicologists who are more explicit in appealing to commercial forces and the market as a supposedly emancipatory alternative to other means of cultural production, or sometimes denying there could be any alternative to the former. This is a perfectly legitimate perspective, and one which deserves proper consideration, but there are many obvious reasons to doubt the extent to which such an ideological viewpoint should be associated with the political left.
Paul also repeatedly returned to the issue of Anglo-American xenophobia in musicology. He was not alone in this; even Nicholas Cook, coming from a very different ideological and scholarly perspective from Paul, had reason to criticise what he called ‘the xenophobic essentialism that Taruskin seems on occasion to erect into a historiographical principle’ (Nicholas Cook, ‘Alternative Realities: A Reply to Richard Taruskin’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 30, no. 2 (2006), p. 208; a reply to Richard Taruskin, ‘Review: Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207). Paul wrote about the ‘E→G→N short circuit’, which he associated especially with Taruskin, whereby Europeans (E) become conflated with Germans (G) which become conflated with Nazis (N). This is rooted within a tradition of neo-conservative thought, which sees American-style capitalist democracy, fascism, or Stalinist communism, with the latter two also seen as very similar in many ways, and European social democracy distrusted and sometimes demonised for its lack of wholehearted embrace of the US model.
Paul’s final book as an academic is The Event of Music History (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2021), some of which I am continuing to process at present, and about which I plan to write a more extended response. In this he sought to address fundamental historiographical questions and the question of what constitutes a ‘subject of music history’. He concentrated critical attention on postmodern theories of history such as those of Hayden White, F.R. Ankersmit, Keith Jenkins or Alun Munslow, as well as a range of alternative models provided within musicology, in particular some outlined by James Hepokoski (in ‘Dahlhaus’s Beethoven-Rossini Stildualismus: Lingering Legacies of the Text-Event Dichotomy’, in The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini: Historiography, Analysis, Criticism, edited Nicholas Mathew and Benjamin Walton (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 15-48). These could be delineated into four categories: (1) a critique of Western European canons and their ideological underpinnings; (2) an attempt to dilute what is perceived as an elitist, anti-democratic and German-centred canon by greater incorporation of Mediterranean opera, performer-centered composition, nationalistic works not traditionally viewed as significant, or types of popular or commercial music; (3) a more pronounced shift away from a German-centered canon towards alternative traditions coming from the opposite side of the ‘Beethoven-Rossini divide’ as articulated by Carl Dahlhaus, so that the likes of Donizetti, Verdi, Paganini or Liszt move to centre stage, while a focus on performance replaces score-based analysis, quite deeply distrusted; (4) more difficult to summarise, but employing the opposition between the ‘drastic’ and the ‘gnostic’ cited by Carolyn Abbate (in ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 3 (2204), pp. 505-36), borrowed from philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, focusing above all on musical reception, and valorising the performative/drastic in opposition to the gnostic. Paul examines these in some detail, in all cases critically, and proceeds in the book to engage with the work of Theodor Adorno to a more thorough extent than previously, leading to extended chapters returning to the central figure of Beethoven, the role of analysis in discerning the ‘truth content’ of his works, as well as questioning some reductive models of the relationship of Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ style to the Napoleonic era and so on.
I have significant differences with Paul on many issues. He is deeply invested in Lacanian psychoanalysis, about which I am more sceptical, as I am about some intellectual figures he strongly favours, such as Badiou or Slavoj Žižek. I take a somewhat different view of such issues as the ‘Beethoven-Rossini divide’, and have perhaps greater sympathies with views which believe in a certain decentring of a particular Austro-German canon (and as such, have more time for strategy 2 above, which has informed some of my own teaching), and even with those which make a rather stark valorisation between highly commercially focused music-making and that which exists with some degree of protection from the vagaries of the market. In that respect, I do not so strongly go along with every aspect of Paul’s critique of some of the arguments of Richard Taruskin, even though I also maintain some aspects of this and other critiques of this body of work. Paul is not sympathetic to the most of the field of historically-informed performance, from a position probably closer to that of Pierre Boulez than Taruskin, while I see this field as of huge importance and value. Furthermore, I believe some of Paul’s critiques themselves to be too all-encompassing in nature, though it is important to note, for example, his critique of some work of ethnomusicologist Henry Stobart was balanced by a counter-example taken from another ethnomusicologist, Martin Stokes. While heavily critical of a lot of directions in ethnomusicology, this did not amount to a blanket rejection of this sub-discipline. For myself, I think study of at least one musical tradition from outside of Europe or North America should be an core part of most music curricula, showing students very different musics, social and cultural contexts from those with which they are likely to be familiar, but have a variety of critiques of some methods and ideological positions associated with ethnomusicology.
But I recognise a lot of the tendencies outlined in Paul’s resignation post, especially the level of dogmatism, with bullying, pathologisation and demonisation as an alternative to any attempts at communication, engagement and scholarly critique with those of divergent viewpoints. This is very unbefitting of academia, and the very converse of genuine diversity (which should include ideological diversity) and a spirit of critical thinking. Paul has left behind an important body of work, and numerous other contributions to academic life – for example as an elected trustee of the Society for Music Analysis, like myself, and through his immensely generous work creating and maintaining the Golden Pages, an invaluable resource for all musicologists listing upcoming conferences, dissertation abstracts, citation guides, online resources, university music departments, and more. But he had weathered the storms for as long as he wanted to, and wished (on an entirely voluntary basis) for a career change, also in light of an unhappy situation where cuts were made to his department at Royal Holloway, which was also a key arena for very pitched battles between factions. For my part, I am simply very sad to see the departure of both a friend and a scholar for whom I have the highest respect, even where we disagree. British musicology will be all the poorer without Paul.
Guest Post by Eva Moreda Rodriguez in response to my Spectator article – ‘How we read, how we write’Posted: October 16, 2021
The following is a guest blog post by Dr Eva Moreda Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Glasgow, in response both to my recent Spectator article (‘Roll Over, Beethoven’ – online version entitled ‘How the culture wars are killing classical music’ , Spectator, 7 October 2021) – I should add that neither of these titles were my own) and a range of responses on social media, including this by John Aulich.
How we read, how we write
Eva Moreda Rodriguez
A frustrating aspect of the debate around Ian Pace’s The Spectator article on social media was feeling that not all participants seemed to have read the same text as I did. Some accused Pace of wanting everyone to study music in his way (i.e. highly formalistic, dots on pages, music per se and nothing else). I read the article about four times in search of proof that this was indeed what Pace was saying; at some point, I even started to suspect that my ability to understand written English (which, after fifteen years in British academia, I considered to be pretty close to that of a native) was much poorer than I had assumed. Ultimately, though, I remain unconvinced. Pace writes, for example: “It is time to reassert the value of the study of music in its own right”. Does “reassert” imply the exclusion of everything which is not “the music in its own right”? True, Pace could (and probably should) have phrased his claim more inclusively – but the fact that he failed to write, for example, “reassert the value of the study of music in its own right alongside other approaches” is not in itself an indication that he believes these other approaches should be abandoned.
The frustration, however, led me to consider my own ways of reading and of writing: like Pace and J.P.E. Harper-Scott (although perhaps not as acutely as them), I have also felt for a while now that the study of Western art music qua sounding music (as opposed to social practice) is increasingly marginalized in British music academia. Might have I been misreading utterances from colleagues and stranger, twisting meanings and filling gaps based on my prejudices and previous experiences? I would like to pause here on the word “experience”, as I think it is key to this debate. If we are intent on answering the question “is the study of Western art music being marginalized in academia?”, we could (and should) invoke statistics (which, however, don’t tend to be readily available: we’d need to compile them first): numbers of jobs available by specialization; how this might have changed over the years; how many British universities offer courses in X, Y or Z; whether projects in certain areas are disproportionately likely to get funding, and so on. However, the response to such question will also be inevitably shaped by human interaction (with colleagues from our departments, with others we encounter at conferences, funding panels, professional associations, editorial committee). There is a whole new layer of information there that will likely influence our response: for example, when our department is presented to the outer world (in an Open Day, in a TV or radio programme), are certain areas privileged while others are hidden as a sort of dirty secret? How are teaching loads distributed between different kinds of specialisms? Are certain kinds of scholarship or approaches systematically disparaged in informal interactions or “banter” among colleagues (“same old same old”, “going into the archives and digging up positivistic crap”, “gibberish”, etc.)?
Moreover, such personal interactions tend to happen in an environment which demands extreme levels of productivity and incentivises that we see ourselves as rivals rather than colleagues. In addition, during the last year and a half most our interactions with colleagues are likely to have taken place in the emotionally alienating environment of conference calls. There is a risk here, I think, for us to become entrenched in our prior positions and overreact to anything we see as an attack on them. William Cheng – cited by Pace in his article – talks in his book about “paranoid scholarship”, which he has little time for. I am myself a bit of an enthusiast of paranoid scholarship – I take great pleasure in anticipating which kinds of objections might be put forward to my arguments, and how I might best address them before they have even been articulated: I think this has made me a better scholar –, and I would like to suggest that perhaps we should all be more paranoid when doing our scholarship, but less paranoid in everything else, especially when it comes to interacting with colleagues.
So, when I feel that my area of study is becoming marginalized, where does this feeling come from? And might it be that I am subjected to confirmation bias, in that perhaps I tend to read perfectly innocent statements calling for increasing diversification of the music curriculum (a goal I share and have worked towards) as synonymous with “classical music must disappear from the curriculum”? A key point here is the fact that this feeling comes overwhelmingly from interactions on social media (mostly Twitter), rather than in-person. I am, however, dissatisfied with the explanation that Twitter is its own world, where we build bombastic personas or let off steam before going back to our real-life normal, in which we allegedly express who we truly are: at UK universities, we are increasingly expected to use Twitter for professional purposes; the personas we build there might help us obtain professional contacts, co-authors, PhD students – they are part of who we are.
In any case, my sense of how these interactions go is something like this:
A: Cancel classical music!
A: No one said we shouldn’t teach classical music anymore you silly cookie! We’re just saying, why don’t we teach more hip hop?
But I realize that such exchanges, even if they give this impression to me, do not always happen so neatly as laid out above. For example: “A” might be a composite of several people: it might be that there is indeed an “A” which says something to the effect of “Cancel classical music”, then C and D re-tweet it, then, to B’s protestations, C indeed says that we should teach less classical music, D instead is more conciliatory and says that statement A was made for rhetorical effect, but that no one in their right mind would dream of taking it literally. Sometimes the exchange might happen more or less as above, but more protracted in time – so that A says something eminently provocative at a certain point, perhaps for rhetorical effect in a specific context, but then, in a different exchange, they saw it fitter to articulate their argument for diversification in more rhetorically conventional ways.
However, statements to the effect of the “cancel classical music” above are indeed made (or also: generalizations to the effect that classical music is sexist and racist – and if sexism and racism is something no sane person would want at their universities, where does this leave classical music?). They are indeed made by people employed in academia or with some power within it; contrarily, I would struggle to remember instances of similar statements going in the opposite direction (e.g. “music outside the classical canon has no place in universities”).True, I am sure that if we dug up we would find plenty in the comment section of Slipped Disc and similar outlets; these proclamations, however, unlike the above, do not come from individuals who can make decisions about curriculum. To be clear, I believe in freedom of speech and in academia and elsewhere, and I believe in the right of everyone to make such statements as provocatively as they want (as long as they are free of insults and calls to violence, of course). I am also not contrary to the idea that hyperbole and rhetoric effect might have a place, sometimes, in academic debate. I would just like to humbly suggest that colleagues making such statements consider the context (for example, what about PhD students in their departments working on classical music topics, who might be anxious about their job prospects?). I hope I am not asking more than I am trying to give myself as I try to disentangle my own knee-jerk reactions to such proclamations.
If we are to take such provocative statements merely as hyperbole, as an invitation to diversify Music studies (which I think most of us can agree with), it occurs to me that two questions we might want to tackle are: if X approach is to be introduced into Music studies, does it mean everyone has to engage with it? Does it mean every university will have to teach it? Because, I have to confess, what has often led me to feel as if classical music was increasingly marginalized (and, after conversations with colleagues, it seems I am not the only one) was the urging, peremptory tone in the calls for including one approach or another into music study, as if implying that everyone has to do it or else is suspect or, at best, charmingly out of date. But is it so? I myself have made in my own publications that “we” must engage with this or that (e.g., with exile and displaced musicians). And now I wonder: am I being equally peremptory? Might these claims have been read by anyone to imply that every music scholar should engage with exile, or else they are suspect of minimizing the plight of exiled individuals? I sincerely hope not, and I would be horrified if anyone had felt this was the case. I hope the context might have clarified that by “we” I meant, mostly, scholars of Spanish art music between, say, 1930 and 1980, and probably scholars of musical modernism too – but in the understanding that, while exile is a category that I certainly think both groups should have in their minds at some point, for some it is likely to be a footnote rather than a central preoccupation.
Why, therefore, do calls to engage with other categories sound more peremptory to me? Upon reflection, I think the main difference is that engagement with these other categories is often framed as a sort of querelle des anciens et des modernes in ways that I find scholarly unsolid and inaccurate. For example: it is not uncommon in social media debates to find the assumption that, if you don’t regard X as crucial to your scholarship, it’s because you haven’t read the right theorists, or you haven’t understood them: “Read XYZ, who has demonstrated this” (in which “this” is not something verifiable and falsifiable, such as, say, the date of composition of a work). Interestingly, a couple of the most charitable responses to Harper-Scott’s and Pace’s articles intended to portray them as out-of-date, yet ultimately, harmless scholars: their preferred methods of enquiry are now as obsolete as is Lamarckian; let’s pity them and hope they can find solace somewhere else. I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but, whereas paradigms in musicology of course change, the situation is a bit more complex than that: the study of, say, medieval musical palaeography (one of the pillars of musicology when it was first born) can happily coexist, and perhaps even be cross-pollinized, by approaches to the music of the Middle Ages that put more emphasis on the conditions that surrounded music-making. I am sure that many of those who opposed Pace’s article know better than to regard history as a teleological, progress-driven, quasi-Darwinian narrative, and so it perplexes me that they do so with the history of their own discipline.
But, even if we accept that some boring, lineal progress will happen and some approaches will eventually become extinct, it seems to me that my own understanding of where we are in this timeline differs from the perception of those whom I can describe as being on the other side of the debate. I arrived in the UK fifteen years ago to study for a PhD after having completed my undergraduate degree in Spain. At the time, the social history of music was a well-established strand in British and even in Spanish academia; the academic study of popular music felt newer to me, but perhaps it would not feel so now: the pioneers (Frith, Middleton, Tagg) probably now have the right age to be our undergraduates’ grandparents. In short, I do not think it is accurate to portray (as more than a few do) frictions within the discipline as a bunch of old, decrepit formalists resisting the reformist enthusiasm of those who insist (rightly) that music is more than that. Not so long ago, I listened to a fascinating, thought-provoking conference paper which nevertheless disconcerted me somewhat because of its author’s insistence that for a musicologist to privilege society and culture instead of the formal elements of the music extremely uncommon. Is it, in 2021? I would venture that a cursory look at say, what the top five musicology journals have published in the last few years would say otherwise.
In the same way as many did not see themselves reflected in the claim that there’s a push to cancel Beethoven, I often do not recognize the picture that claims that present-day students are fed a strict diet of Bach, Beethoven and Schenker. Maybe this is true in US academia, where I understand the music history survey, harmony and counterpoint are still a staple of the curriculum, but I would say it is emphatically not so in the UK, and I sometimes wish those on the opposite side of the debate would be more forthcoming in recognizing this. I have to confess here that my own experience has perhaps made me quite embittered in this respect: as a new PhD student in the UK, I enthusiastically embraced the claim (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) that music does not simply mean classical music, but other musics too. Even though my expertise was nominally in classical music, I felt the need to engage with the broader world out there, and when I started to teach I made sure to introduce plenty of non-classical topics in my teaching (in courses such as “Analysis” “Historiography”, “Research skills”, which don’t call for a specific repertoire); I also try to engage with other areas of Music study via reading and attending music research seminars. However, over the years I have noticed that colleagues whose main specialization was in ethnomusicology or popular music didn’t feel they needed to diversify their own teaching and engagement to the same extent, and this I’ve found sometimes disheartening, particularly when some of these same colleagues felt the need to point out that my own teaching wasn’t diversified enough (and this often based on the fact that I was, nominally, a “classical” musicologist, and not on the actual content of my classes). Conversations with colleagues at other UK universities suggest that my experience is not uncommon: many scholars who publish predominantly on classical music teach outside those topics, whereas I would dare to say the opposite is less common: while we can surely celebrate the fact that some Music scholars have eclectic research and teaching profiles, we should perhaps also ask ourselves whether cultivating such an eclectic profile (which is surely rewarding, but takes time and work) has become de facto a requirement for some but not for others.
I also wish there was more recognition that the canon is not hegemonic anymore at British universities. I have long resigned myself to the fact that, when teaching Pauline Oliveros’s Bye bye Butterfly, only a handful of students will have heard of Puccini; when teaching Tchaikovsky in relation to queer theory, only a handful will know sonata form and its ideologies to any level of detail, and so on. In his response to Pace’s article, John Aulich used Notre Dame organum as an example, implying that it is a staple of undergraduate teaching. At my university, I can conclusively say that the number of students who encountered Notre Dame organum in the classroom can be counted on the fingers of one hand – i.e. those who took my non-compulsory course in medieval music last year.
I am not saying that civilization is at risk of falling apart if we don’t remedy this; I am saying that this is the reality at the university where I teach, and I would say at many universities in the UK, and that this reality is at odds with the pretence that the content of UK HE music education is still predominantly white, male and formalist. These days, I find myself pondering whether the brave new world that was being envisaged in British academy fifteen, twenty years ago, a world centered around “musics” and not just classical music, is finally here, but maybe we are all realizing it is not that great and we are reacting, in our own way, against that. And, in my own perception, the fact that it is not great it is not necessarily because of anything inherent to the repertoires studied, but because of marketization pressures, de-funding, internal department politics, sometimes even politics plain and simple, and so on. One thing, however, seems clearer to me now more than ever: the problems with music education in HE were and are not due to the hegemony, or even the mere presence of, the classical canon.
A new cover article in The Weekend Australian Review, Rosemary Neill, ‘Notes on a Scandal: The raging debate over our next generation of composers and musicians: should they be able to read a score?’, Weekend Australian Review, 29-30 August 2020, brings to a further readership many of the key issues debated a few years ago as part of #notationgate and also of deskilling (see here and here). This is behind a paywall, but can currently be accessed here for those with a subscription.
Neill speaks at the outset to student composer Dante Clavijo, who surprises some people by saying that he still composes using pen and paper, rather than relying entirely upon digital audio workstations. Clavijo argues that songwriters and composers ‘absolutely benefit from knowing notation; it’s jut a logical way to organise musical thought.’ But this then leads to the question of whether even those studying music at tertiary level need to learn notation. On this, Neill quotes my collaborator Peter Tregear:
Yet Peter Tregear, a former head of the ANU’s school of music, points out that these days, students can graduate with music degrees without being able to read music, particularly if they are studying popular music and music technology subjects or degrees, and he is scathing about this trend.
“I find it concerning,” says Tregear, who obtained a PhD in musicology from Cambridge University and has worked at Cambridge, Melbourne and Monash universities. “It’s a misunderstanding of what universities are there to do. We’re meant to be expanding minds and opening horizons. … If you no longer teach musical notation, you effectively wipe out not just a good deal of recent Australian music history, but a large swathe of music history full-stop.”
Tregear presided over the ANU’s music school from 2012 to 2015 and waged a battle to keep several notation-centred subjects in the music degree. He lost.
He attributes the decoupling of music education and traditional notation to the march of new technologies and – more controversially – to a push to “decolonise” the music curriculum, because the classical canon was largely created by “dead white men”.
The outspoken academic, who has also won a Green Room Award for conducting, tells Review: “There has been, I think, a false or at least a very dubious conflation of arguments around the fact that western music notation is western music notation, and the idea that we shouldn’t favour it for that reason.
“To borrow an Orwellian phrase, ignorance is now a strength – it is considered that we’re actually better off not to teach this, which I find an extraordinary view for any higher education institution to take.”
In contrast, most European countries still comprehensively studied their own music histories. Still, even in Europe, there was a push at some conservatoriums and universities to “decolonise” the curriculum.
“There is a move away from musical notation as being central to a music education as a kind of excuplation for western historical wrongs,” he says.
Tregear argues that if a music student is incapable of engaging with music that was “increasingly written down” over the course of 1000 years, “a whole wealth of the global musical past is effectively closed to you”.
Tregear is opposed by composer and University of Melbourne professor Barry Conyngham who claims that whether or not his institution’s students ‘can read sheet music or not’, they are ‘very musically capable of conveying musical performances and thoughts.’ But composer Matthew Hindson, of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, notes that all students there must study music theory and notation.
Other examples are cited such as Paul McCartney and the Beatles, but Clavijo, like others before him, points out the important contributions of others such as George Martin, who certainly did have a more traditional and formal musical training. Others make claims that any objections to the removal of traditional skills are little more than resistance to ‘decolonisation’.
This article obviously comes from an Australian context, from a country in which (as with the US and even to some extent the UK), art music traditions have a much less central cultural role than in much of continental Europe, and with fewer living musical traditions developed over centuries or millennia as in various Asian and African countries. But it points to a wider trend by which a mixture of over-elevated claims for certain technology, allied to populist and commercialist attitudes (invariably favouring Western popular musics – the study of non-Western musical traditions are faring no better in this environment, for all the rhetoric of decolonisation) are said to obviate any requirement for more rigorous training.
My online timelines fill up with videos and websites promising to teach people how to compose in a few weeks without requiring any learning of harmony, use of instruments, and so on. Furthermore, in an interview from two years ago, film composer Hans Zimmer, recently renowned for his slowed-down version of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ to accompany the arrival of pleasure boats to rescue British soldiers in Dunkirk, the film which was accurately described as fuelling Brexit fantasies, boasts of having ‘no technique’ and ‘no formal education’, but instead ‘the only thing I know how to write about is something that’s inside of me.’ This sort of argument is not new, and was encountered in the nineteenth-century amongst a range of Russian composers opposed to the professionalisation of music-making and establishment of conservatoires for this purpose. Appealing to some sense of inner authenticity and the notion that somehow anyone can be a composer so long as they have something ‘inside of them’, has a long and dishonourable history, as was debated extensively in the responses to Stella Duffy posted on this blog in 2017. It speaks to a wider culture of anti-intellectualism and deskilling, in which the only measure of art is commercial and popular success.
I continue to believe that it would be a great loss if those who go on to teach music in primary and secondary cannot read music and thus will be unable to impart it to pupils, or if composition becomes merely about copying and pasting others’ work. This is not to deny the importance throughout musical history of musical borrowing, an issue about which there are a range of sophisticated theoretical models (of which I undertake a critical survey in order to arrive at models for analysing the work of Michael Finnissy, in my book chapter, ‘Negotiating borrowing, genre and mediation in the piano music of Finnissy: strategies and aesthetics’). A good deal of very superficial writing on postmodernism, intertextuality and so on, is founded essentially a dichotomy between two straw men – an insistence upon absolute originality or total plagiarism, when in reality almost all music of any quality inhabits differing positions on a spectrum. That Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky or any number of others drew upon existing musical forms, genres, styles, sometimes explicitly borrowed musical materials (for example Liszt’s huge range of ‘transcriptions’ for piano, or Brahms’s many pieces alluding to Renaissance or early Baroque choral music) has never seriously been in doubt to anyone familiar with their work. Such examples as Stravinsky’s transformation of baroque musical materials into an angular, askew, sometimes dissonant, and alienated musical experience, Finnissy’s transformations of small groups of pitches and rhythms from Sardinian folk song into wild, rampaging musical canvasses, Ives’s hallucinatory and terrifying visions incorporating the residues upon consciousness of mangled hymns, allusions to brass bands, Beethoven and more, Berio’s carefully-judged fragmentations and superimpositions of a wide range of music from nineteenth- and twentieth-century orchestral and other repertoire on top of parallel threads provided by the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony and a text from Beckett’s The Unnamable, to create an unsettling tapestry of commentary and critique, or for that matter Chopin’s use of known dance and other genres (waltz, polonaise, mazurka, etc.) allied to a Bellinian sense of vocal line and an ultra-refined contrapuntal sensibility, are all a world away from music which simply lifts others’ work or hackneyed clichés for ready-made, tried and tested, effects and moods. What distinguishes the above (and many others, including many in non-‘classical’ fields of composition) is a highly developed and refined level of musicianship, including detailed musical understanding of the properties of the sources upon which they draw. These are not achieved easily, and empty claims that anyone can be a composer comparable with the above, without having to go through the training, are no more convincing than equivalent claims about becoming a surgeon.
Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 2. Papers of Darla Crispin and Peter Tregear.Posted: October 31, 2019
In my earlier post, I detailed the contents of first two papers at the important and well-attended session at the Royal Musical Association Annual Conference 2019 by Larson Powell and Darla Crispin. Here I will do the same with the third and fourth papers by Darla Crispin and Peter Tregear, and then append some wider thoughts of my own on the occasion.
Darla M. Crispin, ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’
Crispin’s paper focused on fundamental questions appertaining to the field of artistic research and the ways in which work in this field might be judged. She began by offering four fundamental questions:
- How do we measure value in artistic research?
- Have we really resolved how to do so in the separate cases of art and research?
- Can artistic research offer fresh insights into our value systems for the separate worlds of art and scholarship, as well as its own hybrid world, or will its influence contribute to a free-for-all situation where all value is subjective?
- Perhaps most fundamentally, how is artistic research in music to develop a more trenchant self-criticism, as the field moves toward maturity?
None of these are easy questions; Anglophone academics may be familiar with particular manifestations thereof in the debates about practice-as-research. Artistic research is a distinct concept, however, which has not yet gained the same currency in English-speaking academia as in parts of continental Europe. Fundamentally, this entails research into artistic practice, carried out by active practitioners, but generally presented in a written form (so the practice itself does not constitute the final output). Crispin argued that this paradigm ‘is more one of a fusion of artistic practice and research, leading to a third entity‘, in comparison to the UK model in which ‘the research retains its distinct identity as research‘ despite operating through the medium of practice, drawing upon concepts from Christopher Frayling’s influential essay 1993 essay ‘Research in art and design’.
Crispin, who has worked extensively at the centre of artistic research programmes in Ghent and Oslo, described how, when the field of artistic research was new, many sought a workable definition such as would facilitate the development of new work methods, courses and programmes and associated curricula, and could be used to validate new advanced degrees, in particular the PhD in artistic research. However, the co-existence of both the UK and continental models has created further complications and controversies, one response to which was the following 2015 statement from the Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen (AEC):
‘Artistic Research shares with other research focussing its study on the arts the aim of promoting the understanding, and thereby the development, of artistic practice; however, it is distinctive in the emphasis it places upon the integral role of the artist in its research processes. Artistic practice is the source from which it draws its questions and also the target towards which it addresses its answers.’
But, as Crispin observed, this statement, attempting to satisfy multiple factions, is ultimately rather bland, and stronger choices need to be made, not least with respect to the thorny question of value of such research. The complexities of the issues has resulted in a relative slow pace of development of a critical framework which, Crispin maintained, requires something ‘couched in terms of words’. Those who believe that the research element is located in the art itself (I am one of those who believe it can be) must look for a critical framework in non-verbal terms, and so existing scholarly concepts of critically need to be rethought.
Crispin alluded to the classic ‘holy trinity’ (my term rather than hers) of criteria for scholarship and research: originality – rigour – significance. The most problematic of these for many existing forms of artistic creation is rigour, and so Crispin asked how artistic self-reflexivity might be rethought as conducive to such rigour, rather than antithetical to it, not least through a reappraisal of traditional scholarly distrust of subjectivity. With this in mind, she produced the following chart:
Very loosely, Crispin asked whether the left hand column tended to represent ‘Art’, the right hand one ‘Research’? But she refined this so that items 1-3 and 5 in the left hand column, and 1-2 in the right hand one could be considered ‘Art & Research’, No. 4 in the left possibly ‘Art only’ and the remaining 3-5 in the right possibly ‘Research only’. I am less convinced that No. 3 of the latter is so far from a good deal of artistic creation, whether the contrast between the first items in either column really amount to more than a caricature of either field, or whether No. 2 in the left amounts to more than romantic mythologisation of the artistic process, and so on, but sometimes stark contrasts between polarised conceptions can be useful in order to dramatise fundamental issues. The chart certainly speaks to me in terms of (sometimes reified) conceptions I have encountered, as for example when I was once told by a senior academic that the real criterion for scholarship is that it is ‘objective’, as if this were such a clear-cut thing (this was from an individual working in a field which in general is characterised by a good deal of speculative hermeneutics, and relatively unsubstantiated assertions). Ultimately, the right hand column says more about what those who police scholarship use as criteria for dismissing it rather than revealing much about what actually constitutes the richest work.
Crispin argued that there was a requirement for ‘the further development of clear methodological frameworks within which subjective enquiry can be carried out’ (I could not agree more and would add that all types of research, not just ‘artistic’, need these). She presented an interesting and productive dichotomy between ‘untrained subjectivity’ and ‘expert subjectivity’, recognising that subjective reflection can nonetheless reflect wider expertise and training.
There are major implications, however, for the manifestations of such considerations in terms of the possibilities of healthy and robust academic debate. To embrace subjectivity means, according to Crispin, ‘to narrow the distance between what one says and who one is’. This brings with it major dangers, whereby the distinction between a legitimate scholarly critique and a personalised attack becomes unclear. I have noticed how many who insist on dramatising their subjective presence in their work – including those who preface every paper with some ‘statement of positionality’ or the like – are quick to use the fact of this blurring of boundaries to avoid actually engaging with the substance of a critique and simply cry foul.* Crispin noted the relative lack of ‘the internal cut-and-thrust of polemical debate’ within artistic research, and called for more informed criticism, which can only come from peers.
Is this likely to happen? Crispin did not answer this wholly unequivocally: she noted how artistic research has been as likely to absorb the worst as the best aspects of more long-established disciplines, but had the potential to shape itself as an arena for addressing fundamental questions of art, and could reach out to wider musical or music-making communities as a result. These are strong ideals, though there is a long way to go. A tendency on the part of some artistic researchers to pepper their writings with the maximum number of references to jargon taken from various vogueish intellectuals (at present, Alain Badiou and Bruno Latour are very much in fashion), not always in order either to clarify arguments, nor situate them meaningfully within a wider theoretical context, but simply to add a ‘scholarly’ aura often to writings in which the findings relating to artistic practice are relatively modest, hardly encourages engagement with such texts on the part of wider communities of musicians.
But artistic researchers depend primarily for their existence on winning favour and prestige within narrow academic communities, and convincing sceptics (sometimes including university bureaucrats with little investment in artistic disciplines at all) that they deserve recognition comparable to their colleagues in STEM and other fields. Crispin’s clear-sighted awareness of these continuing problems was made manifest in her final quote, from Elin Angelo; Øyvind Varkøy and Eva Georgii-Hemming, ‘Notions of Mandate, Knowledge and Research in Norwegian Classical Music Performance Studies’, Journal for Research in Arts and Sports Education Vol. 3, No. 1 (2019), pp. 78–100:
‘Overall, attitudes, hierarchies, positions, disciplines and profiles in performing programmes seem to be challenged by academisation processes. This could be met by maintaining silence, or also by the will and interest to communicate and actively participate in dialogues. ‘Publish or perish’ is a bad ideal for higher music education, unless one redefines what is meant by ‘publish’. Unless classical performers engage in (verbal) discussions about who their peers should be and what norms classical music educators should follow, and why, then these judgments will be left to non-musicians.
A final conclusion in this article is, therefore, speak! Who is better qualified to say something about mandate, knowledge and research in and for higher music education than higher music educators themselves (teachers/leaders/researchers/students)? Only by verbalising the challenges, inviting dialogue and questioning of the qualifications (or the lack thereof), might one facilitate the academisation processes to work for and not against higher music education.’
However, there is still a fair way to go in terms of combating anti-intellectualism on the part of many practical musicians (and indeed, some of the academics who idolise them) and the converse tendency of musicologists to pass judgement on musicians and others involved in the music business, but assume that no-one other than other academics are entitled to any judgement on them and their own work.
* A particularly egregious example of this was a comment from Georgina Born in a 2016 debate on music technology at my own institution, in which she insisted the critique by Björn Heile, in his 2004 essay ‘Darmstadt as Other: British and American Responses to Musical Modernism’ of her deeply problematic neo-liberal polemic Rationalising Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Insitutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde, could only be motivated by sexism. This article contained what was actually a relatively moderate critique on Heile’s part, focusing primarily on the fact that Born arrives at over-arching judgements on a whole body of musical work on the basis of reading associated statements rather than independent engagement with the sounding work.
Peter Tregear, ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.
Perhaps the most hard-hitting and cogent paper in the session was the final one, by Peter Tregear, looking at fundamental questions of the role of empirical truth in musicology in the light of recent polemics. Tregear kindly provided me with an earlier, longer draft of his paper (which is currently under review for a special issue of Twentieth- Century Music edited by Wolfgang Marx, entitled ‘Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth’, for publication in 2020) with important material I would like to reproduce here.
In this, Tregear recognised that the types of fact-finding and testing of propositions undertaken by musicologists are of a different nature to those of empirical scientists, while the traditionally important role of the untestable factor of aesthetic judgement takes the discipline away from empirical truth. However, he noted the now-familiar fact that ‘fake news’ and disinformation have come to undermine scientific findings when they better suit particular individual values or political agendas, and that a similar phenomenon is occurring in musicology:
‘It used to be considered a given of scholarly practice that when a musicologist proposed an idea it would be assessed primarily on the basis of the cogency, originality and rigour of the arguments that support it. The broader community of scholars would then assess the underlying validity of an argument by scrutinising both its inherent reasoning and by comparing it against a body of pre-existing knowledge. To this end, musicological discourse has traditionally held itself to account in ways comparable to scientific practice despite the fact that the musicologist does not only deal with empirical facts. However, with theoretical buttressing from ideas such as postmodernism and deconstructionism, it is possible at the same time to profess a profound scepticism of the very idea of truth in scholarship.’
Examples of this given by Tregear include the way in which even to make reference to immanent musical qualities is frequently interpreted as an expression of social biases on the part of the musicologist (Tregear alluded to Pierre Bourdieu, but this position reminds me more of the various Soviet strictures on ‘formalism’ in music, culminating in the 1948 Zhdanov decree), or that all choices of areas of research and teaching are portrayed merely as a means for particular social forces to exercise and protect their power. Tregear recognised positive dimensions to this, in terms of the potential to engender proper debates about musical value, but also pointed out that this requires levels of intellectual rigour and breadth of perspective such as would enable ‘specifically musicological interests and concerts’ to rise above ‘the general din of today’s opinion-saturated, post-truth culture’. He noted the difficulties of this in a culture which distrusts ‘experts’, as diagnosed in such books as Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008), Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and others. With this comes a situation in which sustained thought is overshadowed by comment, opinion, and ironic refusals to commit to anything, and culture becomes, in the words of political scientist Patrick Deenen, ‘synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promotion consumption, appetite, and detachment’.
Such a situation both threatens and conditions musicology in particular ways, according to Tregear. His diagnosis of particular outcomes included ‘The elevation of feeling over thinking‘, especially in autoethnographic writing (the subject of a further round-table in which I participated later the same day). Quoting Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis (from the introduction to their Making Autoethnography Sing/Making Music Personal (Bowen Hills: Australian Academic Press, 2009)) on how autoethnography supposedly encourages the conveying of ‘the meanings of vibrant musical experiences evocatively’ rather than ‘dry descriptions’, Treager echoed some of Crispin’s comments about the dangers of over-elevation of subjective experience per se, in his observation that ‘It quickly becomes more important to declare how one feels, than to show why one thinsk something, about a musical proposition or musical work.’ All that really matters is the ‘authenticity’ of one’s personal experiences, and there is less incentive for musicologists to look beyond the limits of these (one might add that this sort of academic narcissism is the very converse of the type of multi-perspectival approach which is surely a necessary condition for any meaningful commitment to diversity). All that remains is personal taste, and any conflicts in this respect can be about to little more than the manifestation of institutional power structures. Any possibility of generating some larger communal identity for the purposes of solidarity is lost behind ‘a cloud of authorial subjectivities’.
Especially perceptive was Tregear’s concomitant observation that when the self is everything, then this leads to a devaluing and deskilling of music teaching and scholarship, the disappearance of any type of critical consensus for the evaluation of work, and of knowledge systems such as those provided by music theory and historical narratives. Even peer review becomes relatively meaningless. The situation he describes is depressingly familiar, though many of the claims made about power structures seem to little bother some of their strongest advocates when it comes to their own positions within such structures, and claims to expertise (I was reminded of the furious reactions on social media to the semi-serious conclusion to my contribution to the 2016 debate ‘Are we all ethnomusicologists now?’)** Tregear was adamant of the vital role of universities in bolstering and defending ‘the possibility of objective truth’ (though it was clear this was conceived in a more contingent manner than that to which I alluded earlier), promoting and disseminating public knowledge rather than merely lived experience.
The second aspect of Tregear’s diagnosis, ‘An increasing aversion to the principles of scholarly writing‘, brought in the principal object of his critique, the book Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016) (available to read in full online for free here), essentially an attack on the bulk of musicological writing. Cheng is a one-time pianist who now primarily writes ludomusicology (the study of music for video games). I will return to Tregear’s critique of Just Vibrations presently. Tregear cited as one sign of the breakdown of the scholarly values in musicology was the growth in APA (‘Harvard style’) referencing , enabling academics to present ideas as if they were established facts, in the manner of scientific discoveries (I have noticed how often Edward Said’s highly contentious and widely contested arguments, especially in Orientalism, are regularly used by new musicologists and ethnomusicologists in this respect – ‘We know (Said 1978) that Western writers portray the ‘Orient’ in order to exercise their power and domination over colonial subjects’, etc.). Tregear noted an acerbic critique of this from Russell Smith (‘Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research’, The Globe and Mail, 31 October 2017).
The third point of Tregear’s critique was ‘An over concern for utility‘, whereby musicologists are instructed by Cheng to direct their work towards specific social goals or goods (a simple rehash of very old utilitarian arguments which have traditionally been used to undermine academic autonomy, or those in music from the advocates of Gebrauchsmusik, and then the similar doctrines as enforced in fascist and communist regimes). Tregear asked who should determine what the appropriate types of goals or good should be, and continued (in a somewhat Adornian fashion) to note how this approach could not but help but shut out any sort of reasoned dissent. Cheng’s prognosis would lead to the situation in which institutions commission academics to write supposedly authoritative scholarly histories of themselves, but with the clear understanding that these must not highlight some of such institutions’ more unsavoury elements (this has been a major consideration in ‘official’ histories of institutions in post-1945 Germany which were also active prior to 1945, or in musical institutions with dark histories of abuse and bullying, all of who require Persilschein).
Following this, Tregear alluded briefly to the ‘grievance studies hoax’ carried out Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, in which seven fabricated papers (one of them a rewriting of a chapter from Mein Kampf) were accepted by major academic journals. Tregear suggested that this happened primarily because such papers appealed to a sense of righteousness, and particular identity groups, and this type of authority took priority over any other form of reasoning or observation. Personal biases, once viewed as something to guard against and if necessary correct, have become a reigning scholarly principle. With the eschewal of any attempt at disinterest, what remains, according to Tregear, is what literary scholar David Palumbo-Lui calls (in the context of modern languages) ‘a morbid constellation of egotism, arrogance, self-enclosure, and normalized self-interest’, and also, as identified by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, limited skills encountered in students in terms of analytical thought, reasoning and written expression. This situation will surely be familiar to many, and is sometimes replicated and perpetuated by other academics who were themselves schooled in institutions which devalued these types of qualities.
In the version of the paper presented at the RMA, Tregear began by paying tribute to Tamara Levitz’s keynote lecture the previous day, ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom’ and her worries about the ‘implications for musicology of the age of democracy’s demise’, feeling his own work dealt with similar themes. Then he moved straight to Cheng’s book, placing this in the context of ‘a renewed identity crisis in musicology’, and noting Cheng’s claim the discipline might ‘renegotiate the means and purposes of careful labor, intellectual inquiry, and living soundly’. Tregear noted the primarily favourable reception this book has received, even in a mildly critical review-article by Kate Guthrie (‘Why we Can’t All Just Get Along’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 143 (2018), pp. 473-482), and attributed its impact to a variety of factors: the authors association with influential US professional musicological networks, the decision of the publishers to make it available to read for free online, but also ‘its self-declared progressive and confessional style’, leading it to win the Philip Brett Award of the American Musicological Society in 2016.***
To Tregear, Cheng’s book, while rightly encouraging a broader consideration of what and who musicology is for, also ‘gives us a clear warning as to what is also now at stake’. Some of this was simply through over-reaching, as in the exaggerated claim that a ‘musicological ear’ could add depth to the analysis of the use of a siren sound to close a TV episode. But Tregear was also sceptical of Cheng’s definition of musicology as ‘all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicological community…’, believing that this makes the crisis of identity in musicology all the more acute.
Tregear did not deny the value of musicology which entailed advocacy, and noted how this was unavoidable in his own work on music history in Weimar Germany. At the same time, he recognised that his own training led him to attempt to identify particularly bias, and how this might distort research (and, by implication, one should try to correct this). He cited American Social Psychologist Lee Jussim and others’ pertinent observations on how when we are ‘motivated by high moral principles, such as combating global warming, or advancing egalitarianism, such motivations may lead to practices that threaten [research] integrity.’ (Lee Jussim, Jarret T. Crawford, Sean T. Stevens, Stephanie M. Anglin, and Jose L. Duarte, ‘Can High Moral Purposes Undermine Scientific Integrity?’, in The Social Psychology of Morality eds. Joseph P. Forgas, Lee Jussim, Paul A.M. Van Lange (London: Routledge, 2016), 190). Ultimately, Tregear believed that the scholarly nature of musicological research is the source of its ethical import, the detachment this requires making it possible to relate findings to the work of other scholars, wider bodies of knowledge, and society-at-large.
But in contrast to this, Cheng’s view is that most of the traditions of scholarly writing are simply designed to ‘impress people, win arguments, and elevate one’s status’, drawing upon the concept of ‘paranoid reading’ from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in her Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), an arch-example of the sort of tendencies identified in the longer version of Tregear’s paper). Against Cheng’s dismissive evocation of how musicologists are ‘trained to write in a manner that preemptively repels potential knocks against their work’, Tregear asked whether this wasn’t the precise thing which enables good academic writing ‘to justify its claim to be taken seriously as a public utterance’, rather than ‘a mere assertion of the taste, desires, beliefs, or caprice of the researcher’. The musicologist generates trust from their reader by justifying their claims on the basis of reasoned propositions or facts.
Cheng writes disparagingly about ‘aesthetic autonomy’, ‘academic freedom’, recommendations of ‘Let music be music’ or ‘Let scholars be scholars’, which all allegedly displace attention ‘from the role musicologists ought to be playing as “care givers and social agents”‘. I see no place for scholarly values of any type here, only political judgement on the part of Cheng (one wonders why he is particularly concerned about owning a university position, rather than working as a political activist?) Tregear presented the danger of a priori political values overriding other scholarly ones through the 2000 libel case launched by writer and holocaust denier David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. In the words of chief expert witnesses, Professor Richard J. Evans (whose expert report can be read here, an essential read for all concerned about questions of historical truth; a shorter version is to be found in Evans’ book Telling Lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, Hitler and the David Irving Trial (London: Verso, 2002)), the trial was about the ‘very creation of historical knowledge from the remains the past has left behind’. Whereas earlier commentators had often sought to dismiss Irving’s work on the basis of his politics, and others of a mainstream conservative position but little specific expertise in his area had erred to believing it had some historical value despite the politics, Evans’ approach to the texts was relentlessly forensic, involving fact-checking and various other types of scrutiny, revealing how Irving distorted sources, ignored them when they did not suit his purposes, read them deliberately out of context, or applied wildly different standards to different types of sources, for example requiring the highest standards of corroboration for anything said by Churchill, while taking Hitler’s words at face value. As Tregear put it, Evans was able to defeat Irving’s misreadings of the past (and his investigation has probably done far more to discredit Irving’s propaganda than anyone else had managed) ‘by being – indeed – rigorously paranoid‘.
Tregear charged that Cheng’s demands can lead to scholarly outcomes which are neither progressive nor innovative, because the lack of the traditional disciplinary tools and types of discourse undermine the rhetorical and moral authority of musicology (I suspect one reason Cheng is unable to see this has much to do with a in-group, out-group attitude which precludes any real constructive debate with anyone who does not already agree with him on the matters he believes to be important). Furthermore, when ‘research’ becomes overtly about advocacy, the systems of disciplinary accountability and peer review become relatively meaningless, and the result truly would be ‘a jostling for power and patronage’.
With this in mind, Tregear argued that musicology also needs ‘to undertake a serious system examination of the impact on musicology itself of the changing institutional context in which scholars like Cheng are flourishing’. He noted the damning findings of a 2017 University and College Union (UK) report (‘Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context’) that despite the purported norms of academic freedom, the commonplace reality is one of ‘bullying, psychological pressure and self-censorship’, with university managements employing administrative tools, metrics, research exercises, student evaluations, and so on. The claim that empowering students to make consumer choices would, according to the UK Department of Education, ‘shine a light on poor quality teaching and ensure standards are driven upwards’ leads to the situation, as diagnosed by Nichols, by which ‘the layperson becomes accustomed to judging the expert’. Managers and administrators now call the shots, and require loyalty to them (and, I would add, often the uncollegiate requirement of loyalty to a specific institution and its own staff over and above any working elsewhere) over any loyalty to values immanent to a particular discipline. The following quote from Nichols, cited by Tregear in the longer version of his paper, is especially pertinent:
‘Emotion is an unassailable defence against expertise, a moat of anger and resentment in which reason and knowledge quickly drown. And when students learn that emotion trumps everything else, it is a lesson they will take with them for the rest of their lives.’
The important conclusion derived from this by Tregear in the longer paper is of an unholy alliance between ‘self-oriented’ scholarship, and the demands of managerial cultures in universities, citing the following chart from Marc A. Edwards and Siddharta Roy (in ‘Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition’, Environmental Engineering Science, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017), pp. 51-61), demonstrating the pervasiveness of corporate language and values:
Tregear recognises that academic and institutional autonomy have never been, and likely would never be, completely pure and unmediated concepts, and also that disciplinary standards change over time, sometimes radically, but the nature of the types of change he was describing, as spearheaded by Cheng and others, have little to do with the very nature or requirements of the discipline of musicology. He attributed this to the failure of music academics to hold their own administrative leaderships to any kind of account (in fairness, I would say that many such academics are struggling with precarity and fear of losing their positions, and so are forced to operate in a dog-eat-dog academic climate of fear, though Tregear does allude to this), and the removal of democratic structures such as used to allow academics to elect their own Vice-Chancellors. In this sense, I would argue that Cheng and others are essentially providing a new spin upon corporate academic ideals. It is no coincidence that such a view finds most currency in the USA, where the corporatisation of academia may me more advanced than anywhere else in the Western world.
In conclusion, Tregear maintained the view that universities and disciplines such as musicology can still teach a capacity to make ‘rigorous, sustained, reflective, truth claims’, while recognising that he belongs to a group that have traditionally been the chief subjects and beneficiaries of such a thing, and also that the traditional tools of scholarship do not guarantee that the findings will transcend limitations of class, ethnic origin, or other identity groups. Nonetheless, he still argued that one should attempt to think beyond particular allegiances and identities, and institutions should seek to bolster and defend rational enquiry and the possibility of objective truth rather than narrow forms of knowing which rely primarily upon lived experience. Musicology is unlikely to effect serious social change, but can at least, according to Tregear, ‘help us develop and refine the kinds of thinking and hearing that can make us more valiant for the pursuit of truth’ in the world.
**This was the following:
‘I will end with a reapplication of Marcel Mauss to this field of ethnomusicology itself. Its participants offer up endorsements for the right theorists, the right canonised and revered ethnomusicologists, the right political outlook, generally that sort of ‘consumerist multiculturalism’ which accords well with modern neo-liberalism, to those who are in a position of power above them, and are rewarded for this through promotion and research grants in a process of exchange. Collegiate relationships within hierarchical academic structures are made possible through this process of reciprocity. This may be an unfair caricature, but no more so than many of the analyses in this body of work.’
It was not clear whether those ethnomusicologists fulminating about those on social media, often in an ad hominem manner, realised the point being made in re-applying the type of unsubstantiated allegations routinely made by them to other bodies of individuals to ethnomusicologists themselves.
***Philip Brett was another writer who wrote dismissively of musicology as being anything other than ‘cultural politics’, and the very concept of ‘scholarship’ (in ‘Round Table VIII: Cultural Politics’, Acta Musicologica, vol. 69, fasc. 1 (Jan-June 1997), pp. 45-52). He called musicology ‘not a happy word’ which ‘attempts to give a sort of academic legitimacy to an activity which goes on in most cultures – thinking, talking, and gossiping about music and judging it.’ (‘Are You Musical?’, The Musical Times, vol. 135, no. 1816 (June 1994), pp. 370-376). This may be an apt description of Brett’s own work, but not that of plenty of others, and I would find it difficult to set much scholarly value in a prize named after someone who did not believe in scholarship.
The questions demonstrated a clearly positive and supportive attitude towards the papers, perhaps with a greater degree of general consensus than many of us on the panel had imagined would be likely to be the case. Just one suggested that while it may be easy to present this type of ‘conservationist’ view at a conference like that, things might be different at that of the American Musicological Society (though the implication that this latter should be afforded some primacy needs questioning, unless one takes a Trumpian view of the axiomatic superior importance of anything taking place in the United States of America).
The then outgoing President of the Society for Music Analysis (trustees from which, of whom I am one, were well-represented amongst the audience for the session), Julian Horton, opined that ‘our discipline has lost its object’. Rebecca Herrisone, from the University of Manchester, asked the fair question of whether a simple need to gain and maintain students, in the face of an increasingly ruthless marketplace, might be driving deskilling. How departments can survive in such an academic climate, without joining in a ‘race to the bottom’, is one of the major challenges today, though ome can cynically appropriate this situation to legitimise the sorts of dumbing-down they desire anyhow (not that Herrisone was remotely doing this). Roddy Hawkins, also from the University of Manchester, asked a question to Moreda Rodriguez relating to research-led teaching, the exact details of which I do not recall precisely. Another individual who I did not know wondered whether a renewed emphasis on notation would risk centering ‘the canon’ again at the expense of other composers, though did not necessarily give a reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing.
Nicholas Reyland (RNCM) asked us all what we believed to be the major threat to music education. Some responses to this were a little muted, though Moreda Rodriguez made clear that she believed the main danger was the loss of any common ground, vocabulary and set of references with which musicologists could talk to each other. I myself opined at this point that to me the primary danger was that it would simply become subsumed within other disciplines and cease to exist in its own right, and that this was a danger of an excessive focus upon interdisciplinarity, in which music and musicology are invariably the junior partners.
One of the 2019 RMA keynote speakers, Tamara Levitz, was especially positive about the session, and mentioned some of her own strong reservations about the work of Cheng, which has had a relatively unquestioning acceptance in much of the US (and in many reviews in academic journals other than that of Peter Tregear). There was also a productive exchange between Levitz and Powell on the role of theory in teaching.
Knowing of Levitz’s own pathbreaking work on the teaching of Busoni and the ideas of the Junge Klassizität in early Weimar Germany, and also of the related work by others on the panel (Tregear and I have worked extensively on this area, while Powell and Crispin have written on composers active during this time, and Moreda Rodriguez’s work deals with a similar historical period) I raised the question of whether attacks in recent decades on musical autonomy are really so new, considering how widespread similar positions were in Weimar Germany (from Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Hans-Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Hanns Eisler, Heinrich Besseler and others, and fuelling the movements of Neue Sachlichkeit and Gebrauchsmusik). This generated further discussion which continued outside of the forum. There is always room for scepticism about any movements in academia, art or elsewhere which claim that their work constitutes a thoroughgoing break with practically all that has gone before, and makes claims for originality without necessarily sufficient historical knowledge to be in a position to make such claims, and the new musicology is no different in this respect.
Some Thoughts from the Session
As convenor and chair, I was extremely pleased with the session and the responses. Every speaker presented original, measured, but cogent arguments, unafraid to challenge some of the most malign tendencies in our discipline, even when propagated by individuals with significant institutional power. The seemingly less contentious thoughts of Crispin on subjectivity and the ways in which academics might engage with this while upholding scholarly values, took on a different flavour in contrast to the ideas of William Cheng as presented and critiqued by Tregear. Cheng’s position is not particularly new, just more explicit in its overt dismissal of scholarly truth than most of its postmodern predecessors. I take a somewhat more benevolent view towards the possibility of autoethnographic writing than Tregear, believing in the possibility of generating genuinely new knowledge through critical self-reflection on one’s own work and experiences, but nonetheless certainly recognise the self-obsessed type of writing which he identifies as laying claim to this concept.
Moreda Rodriguez’s paper was also sharp in many of its findings, not least the extent to which some of those laying claim to the rhetoric of the ‘global’ continue, say, to identify the whole of the ‘Americas’ with the United States, thus perpetuating an arch-imperialist view. But her paper and Powell’s may have contained some of the most positive messages for ways forward, in her case recognising the value of attempts to draw the boundaries of music history more broadly than hitherto. But at the same time, she does not underestimate the scale of this task, and notes the huge limitations of superficial work in this respect, especially that which appropriates such an important area of study in order simply to make petty virtue-signalling points about ‘West versus the rest’, and in the process practically ignore hugely influential (in a global sense) developments just because they happen to have occurred in the West.
Tregear’s paper entailed the most far-reaching critique of contemporary musicology or indeed wider academia. I would like to extend his points relating to the overlap between advocates of a self-focused approach to academic writing and the priorities of university managements. But I believe the neo-liberal meeting of minds goes further, in areas of musicology and cultural studies in particular. There is a long and distinguished tradition (coming from such distinct thinkers as Walter Lippmann, Theodor Adorno, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Richard Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Jim McGuigan, Greg Philo and Naomi Klein; but in diametric opposition to cultural populists such as Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, John Fiske or Andrew Ross) which maintains that the meanings of culture and media and their effects upon consciousness are not always determined wholly by the immediate cultural producers (in the sense of the artists) nor by the recipients (listeners, viewers, readers, etc.) but can also reflect and propagate other priorities and agendas determined by the powerful industries behind such culture. It would be surprising if this were not the case, considering the vast sums of money such industries spend on marketing, market research, advertising, focus groups, and so on, or if this did not have some impact upon a wider cultural sphere, including that which is less big business. But this view is hard to square with the uncritical adulation of popular culture (and often, by extension, the ultra-commercialised sphere in which much of it exists), and the belief that such culture empowers both musicians and listeners (in contrast to much maligned ‘high culture’, the alleged hierarchies and hegemonic values of which are dissolved in a culture operating first and foremost in the marketplace). In the work of Susan McClary or Georgina Born, and their countless acolytes in academia, a ‘romancing of the marketplace’ has become so commonplace that it can be viewed as highly contentious even to question it. The links between this world view and the agenda of the neo-liberal university, equally concerned to portray the market as an empowering force, could at best be described as naive, at worst as wholly cynical.
Powell’s identification of the important distinction between semiotics and communication theory was new to me, and explains a good deal. His advocacy of a combination of semiotics/topics with reflective hermeneutics is extremely promising, as is his insistence on a properly dialectical rather than narrowly hierarchical approach to the relationship between different parameters within a film. It is disappointing, even shocking, to hear some of the outright misrepresentations and uninformed claims he identifies, not to mention the simplistic and often didactic strictures, but I know these are far from atypical, especially in popular and film music studies. Why is there such a cavalier disregard for basic factual accuracy or fair representation of sources? I believe this has something to do with a beleaguered and automatically defensive reaction on the part of members of certain sub-disciplines, believing their field to be disrespected but then acting in such a way as to make this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, one might argue that there is a simpler explanation of why various others are hostile to fact-checking, scrutiny of arguments or any of the other processes which are used to discern the distinction between scholarly and other forms of writing. As I argued in a paper over a decade ago, and will return to in a future article, the renditions of the work of Carl Dahlhaus in particular by McClary, who lends her endorsement to Cheng’s book, entail a shocking number of flagrant misrepresentations, disregarding of material which does not suit her prior arguments, quoting out of context, and so on. While the stakes are obviously less serious than in the case of Irving, the scholarly practice is not much better. Only a few have been prepared to pursue such aspects of McClary’s work (one good example is Tim Carter’s ‘An American in…?’, Music & Letters, vol. 83, no. 2 (May 2002), pp. 274-8). Others simply reiterate her work without checking it against the sources it claims to represent, and – whether unwittingly or otherwise – help to consolidate such misrepresentations and render them ideology. This is the essence of how post-truth propaganda works, and it is disappointing to see this process prevalent in academia, and the ways in which it does indeed facilitate ascendancy within power structures. Only a properly ‘paranoid’ approach can serve as a corrective.
Without any conception of scholarly truth or value other than nebulous demands that work should do ‘social justice’, how is it ever possible that work can be marked, peer-reviewed or otherwise evaluated fairly by those adhering to the type of post-truth view expounded by Cheng and others (as found in some of Just Vibrations‘ more hagiographic reviews, such as that by Kyle Devine, writing in Music and Letters – a large section of which was reproduced in one of the targets of Devine’s ire, the blog Slipped Disc, which ran a series of earlier blogs on Cheng’s book). Such processes may need be subject to vigorous scrutiny and if necessary appeal, because of the very real risk of censorship of all who do not adhere to a narrow political outlook. The grievance studies hoax is just the tip of the iceberg of a wider corrosion of academia, which is certainly not total (or else academics such as me, or the others in the panel, would not really be at liberty to critique it), but still a major force. It is also time to look at the working of academic power structures, as begun by Tregear, it to examine on what basis Cheng and others have been able to acquire institutional power, just as they malign others in this respect.
The reception of the book Rethinking Contemporary Musicology will be interesting to view, and is sure to include various significantly more negative responses than encountered in this forum. But, despite hearing privately a couple of rather petty responses which nitpicked a few small details rather than engage with the wider arguments, I was encouraged to find the number of people (as witnessed in subsequent discussions after the forum) who felt the importance of much of what was discussed, and indeed felt more at ease discussing such issues themselves as a result of this forum.
+ These and other issues are addressed in my three forthcoming essays ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Study of Western Art Music: Questions of Context, Realism, Evidence, Description and Analysis’, and ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography: Uncritical Musical Perspectives’, both in Research and Writing about Contemporary Art and Artists, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2020), and ‘The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music: Territorial and Methodological Concerts’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology.
In a recent social media post, cellist, composer and musicologist Franklin Cox wrote something I found inspiring and rather beautiful, and wanted to make public (with permission). The idea of musicians and scholars as ‘custodians’ of a tradition is deeply unfashionable, especially in academia, as historical or other study not concerned with maximum commercial utility are increasingly marginalised. There is plenty of work for those dealing with commercial pop music or ludomusicology (the study of music for video games) but dwindling numbers of positions for historical or analytical musicologists other than in the most elite institutions. The ‘contemporary’ is viewed as synonymous with ‘relevance’, and the mindset of former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast Patrick Johnston, who told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old that’s a sixth century historian’, appears to be relatively commonplace amongst many educators, educationalists, and politicians dealing with education.
But I do believe very strongly in the responsibility of scholars for maintaining, extending and supplementing knowledge of thousands of years of music, culture, language. To be such custodians need not preclude a rigorous and critical attitude towards such a tradition, or critical engagement with its more questionable associated or embedded ideologies or practices. On the contrary, such approaches, when undertaken constructively and intelligently rather than simply in a spirit of off-hand dismissal, are essential in order to keep such a tradition a living concern. But to stand by and do nothing as study of this tradition (or of languages, or any art form) is allowed to wither is an act of profound irresponsibility on the part of any musician or scholar. When one has a situation as related to me recently in one leading music department, when not one third year undergraduate was able to hum the opening theme of the Eroica (though plenty of those will have heard about how canonical works such as this represent hegemony, white supremacy, and so on), there is something very seriously wrong.
The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.
It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.
There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.
These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.
The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.
The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.
I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).
The following is Donohoe’s response:
This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’
It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.
However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.
By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?
Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.
The following is part of my response:
The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:
‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’
Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.
‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”
And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.
‘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.) [….] 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’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’
Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’
Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.