My contribution to the debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’

I posted earlier my contribution to one component of the City School of Arts and Social Sciences debate on the legacy of Stuart Hall, which I co-convened. Another event within the same online conference was an excellent debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’, convened by Natalie Tsaldarakis and chaired by Professor Alexander Lingas (City, University of London), which took place on Monday 22 June 2020. The panellists were Natalie Tsaldarakis (City, University of London), myself (City, University of London, Dr Izabela Wagner (University of Warsaw), Professor Ratko Delorko (pianist), Ben Johnson (tenor). The event was stimulated by a lively debate following a tweet from Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at King’s College, University of London.


The abstract for the debate said the following:

In this year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary I propose to organise a public debate following the assertion by Dr. Leech-Wilkinson through social media that ‘classical music performance has nothing to say about current concerns’ taken together with his referenced work on the matter (Challenging Performance). Purportedly, the classical performing world as a whole offers approximations of a single idealised performance and rejects deviations, in the process becoming inaccessible to the audience, and finally culturally divorcing itself from current concerns. Thus, this public debate would welcome a balanced discussion about the role, meaning, and relevance of classical music.

Here is the link to the first episode of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance, which was one of the subjects for discussion. 

It is important that practising professional musicians not working in academia were able to participate in this debate. As I indicate at the beginning of my contribution, academics frequently disparage musicians and the classical music world, but are rarely open to listening to criticism coming from the opposite direction. Leech-Wilkinson was invited to participate in this debate, but declined. One hopes that in the future he will be prepared to subject his views to more scrutiny from beyond circles of like-minded academics.

I am hoping that the video of the full debate will go online soon, and if so, I will post a link to it. Here is my contribution, of which I delivered a slightly abridged version in June.


It is common to hear musicologists passing judgement upon the work and other activities of classical musicians, sometimes in a deprecatory fashion, much less common to hear the reverse. There are various possible explanations for this; amongst the most plausible, I believe, would be that a good deal of contemporary musicology makes relatively little impact upon classical musicians in general, and so some find it insufficiently important or prominent to warrant comment. This is not a happy state of affairs, and there are many ways it can be demonstrated not always to have been the case. Certainly in the field of historical performance there has long been fruitful exchange between scholars and performers. More widely, those who simply draw upon relatively general literature on music to inform their music-making – I am thinking here of general histories or basic analytical work such as are aimed at those who are not academic musicologists, but have a sound general musical training – frequently imbibe the fruits of more detailed scholarly micro-studies which have informed the best of these more general texts. The writings on music of Charles Rosen, whose academic training was as a literary scholar rather than a musicologist, and who only ever held a few short-term fellowships in music departments, would nonetheless have been impossible without his wider knowledge of musicological scholarship, about which he sometimes wrote in more detail.

But while there is in my opinion still plenty of vital scholarship being produced which has at least the potential to be of value to practising musicians, there has been a counter-current for around three decades, a brand of scholarship which frequently seeks to indict numerous varieties of classical music in particular, charging it with colonialism, misogyny, elitism, or at best irrelevance. It is a bizarre spectacle to see such a number of musicologists – a disproportionate number of whom, as the musicologist Paul Harper-Scott has demonstrated, come from very privileged backgrounds in which a sound training in classical music can be taken for granted – spend a large part of their careers trying to do down this realm.[1]

Now, I would never argue that classical music is wholly autonomous of issues of imperialism, gender, race, social division, by any means, but nor do I accept those arguments that would reduce that music primarily or solely to such factors, with a concomitant disdain for any suggestion of musical ‘autonomy’. This direction, far more prevalent in Anglophone musicology than that from elsewhere, has been steered by self-styled ‘new’ musicologists, some ethnomusicologists, sociologists of music, and others who would view the study of classical music as just one relatively small component of cultural studies, its ‘relevance’ to be gauged primarily on the basis of the size of its audiences, by which measure it would become a minor concern compared to commercial pop.

It is in this context that we should consider this now somewhat notorious remark of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, even though he is not really a figure commonly associated with the ‘new musicology’, nor with other of the factions I mentioned, and was for a long period primarily known as a scholar of medieval music. As I said, a key axiom of ‘new musicology’ (or its British near-counterpart, ‘critical musicology’) is a denial of the possibility that music can, let alone should, exhibit any autonomous features, those which cannot simply be explained by social, ideological or other determinants. Yet even if one believes this to be the case, demonstrating such a degree of determination is a difficult process, because of the nature of the medium, and attempts to do so often fall back upon hugely speculative associations. It is not difficult to see how some choral ode to a monarch is linked to aspects of feudalism and associated ceremony, but much harder to explain every note of it can be deduced from such an ideological viewpoint, even less why some such such works, but not others, have proved to have a lasting appeal long after such monarchs are consigned to history. To argue that Josquin’s masses or Bach’s sacred cantatas or Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus could only ever be meaningful or valuable to those committed to the particular religious beliefs associated with such works would be myopic in the extreme, and I maintain the same is true of much other music written for a particular social function or in a specific cultural context.

But such a view persists in sub-sections of musicology, and frequently takes another modified form, an active disapproval of music considered more abstract or autonomous. This view is not new, for sure, and is rooted in the nineteenth-century opposition between a more autonomous musical ‘romanticism’ and species of ‘realist’ music given to external depiction, such as fuelled opposing factions in the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin in particular has been quite unequivocal in his partisanship in this respect,[2] drawing largely upon terminology largely developed in a musicological context by one of his nemeses, Carl Dahlhaus.[3] Another American musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, concludes some extravagant hermeneutical readings on the basis of relatively slight evidence,[4] but in particular is clear that the condition for music to be meaningful requires some external referent, a position which caused even Taruskin to balk somewhat.[5]

In an article which was in part a critique of Kramer, Rosen said that ‘music has meaning but very little reference’, having previously argued that ‘It is not that music is more autonomous [than literature], but more ambiguous, slippery: it will not allow itself to be caught and pinned down like a novel or even like a poem.’[6] The same could be said of sculpture, or of dance, and for none of these art forms is this a weakness. But for Leech-Wilkinson, it would appear that it is, as revealed through his disparaging tweet copied above.

This attracted a fair amount of charged response from musicians such as Peter Donohoe, Paul McCreesh, Lars Vogt, as can be seen in the thread which followed it, and here:


It should be noted that Leech-Wilkinson’s comment was itself a response to another tweet by Donohoe bemoaning the lack of mention of classical music in a BBC news item on the grave financial implications of the virus upon the arts. Leech-Wilkinson’s response was widely regarded as a highly insensitive comment at a time when, due to COVID-19, classical musicians and classical music per se are fighting for their very economic survival. An established musicologist, Emeritus Professor at one of the most prestigious of British institutions, King’s College, University of London, occupies at the very least a position of relative power compared to those dependent for their livelihoods on the field he is berating. However, when this was pointed out, Leech-Wilkinson did issue a partial apology in response to McCreesh.

But what would it mean for classical performance to have ‘something to say about current concerns’, specifically the virus? I fear we will soon come across a whole host of lachrymose works with opportunistic titles or dedications, COVID-19 Requiem, ‘To the memory of those we lost to the virus’, Lockdown Lament, and so on, just as many composers rushed to produce works alluding to 9/11.[7] In many cases the music employed might equally have been produced to order for any other traumatic event  – and will be interpreted as communicating an emotion of sadness, and thereby ‘tell’ listeners that they should remember how sad this is. Any other critical or aesthetic judgement of the piece may then be viewed as demonstrating some lack of proper sensitivity. It is not difficult to imagine at some future date a theatrically-inclined composer instructing all musicians to wear face masks during their piece (independently of any medical need), while the composer will speak in earnest tones in a pre-concert talk in about the importance of preserving memory and the like.

This is not to say that there cannot be value in music which attempts some wider commentary upon traumatic events – a strong counter-example would be Shostakovich’s settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony – which generally avoids the type of mawkish sentimentality that can be found in many previous essays in the type of composition I have just described. Shostakovich’s work of course involves a text with vivid subject matter, and so hermeneutical readings are somewhat less contentious than has been the case for some of his purely instrumental works.

Ultimately, however, I do not accept that the primary purpose of music is to do social good, and reject prescriptive talk insisting that it must do so in order to be considered significant, as Leech-Wilkinson’s comment appears to imply. This view is not really so different from that of Victorian moralists such as Leech-Wilkinson’s compatriots John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold, who insisted on a socially edifying role for art.[8] What all appear to fear is the possibility that art may have value through such attributes as opening up new realms of consciousness, sensation, emotion, in ways which cannot be understood simply as an expression of moral philosophy or political dogma.

It is far too early to ascertain any conclusive scholarly data on how and to what extent classical music or other art might have been important to people during the time of COVID-19. All I can point to is that there have been a great many making the most of the small number of streamed videos of concerts, operas and other musical events, and by no means just those in which one might find particular references which can be linked to the current situation.

For the purposes of this debate, I also listened through to Episode 1 of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance podcast. This features a mixture of frequent pleas as if from a beleaguered position, evoking some apparently sternly ‘policed’ environment of performance, which a range of comments suggesting an equal wish to ‘police’ this himself. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Leech-Wilkinson, while professing to wish for a more pluralistic culture of performance, is really arguing for one dominated by the aesthetics of the early twentieth-century. There are some quite bizarre claims, for example that only some historically ‘correct’ performances being allowed in conservatoires, which would be belied by conversations with those responsible for teaching historical performance at many conservatoires, frequently marginalised and dismissed by ‘star’ teachers.

Leech-Wilkinson’s examples of the Moonlight Sonata, claiming that both are acceptable in classical music circles, appear to contradict some of his earlier claims. No examples are given of these audience members who apparently hate something because it is ‘incorrect’. Also, when noting that Paderewski plays with the two hands desynchronised, Leech-Wilkinson argues as if this practice were not still employed by a fair range of pianists today, including Tom Beghin in the example he gives! My own observation of a large range of recordings through the course of the century shows that this practice never wholly disappeared, just that some came to use it rather more discreetly than was once more common. But even in Paderewski’s time, there were marked differences of degree as well. I myself regularly employ such a technique, not only between hands but also between parts in the same hand, but so do plenty of others, if not necessarily in such a stark fashion as Paderewski. Whether Paderewski’s style mirrors that of a century earlier, during Beethoven’s lifetime, we can never know for sure, but on the basis of other information which does exist about performance in the early nineteenth-century, it is safe to assume that there were a variety of different practices, as there are today. There is nothing to stop a Presto rendition of the Moonlight Sonata, as we hear on the podcast, if someone thinks it worthwhile – Leech-Wilkinson acts as his own ‘police’ when he declares ‘it works musically’, though I find his criteria narrow, by their rendering tempo as a secondary, even trivial, concern. He is perfectly entitled to his view, but so are some of the other reviewers and commenters on YouTube – it seems as if Leech-Wilkinson wants to ‘police’ them.

Would Paderewski be denied a conservatoire place today? I am not sure that can be answered unequivocally. Were critics and teachers somehow less censorious during Leech-Wilkinson’s golden age? I do not think so, as any survey of critical reception or pedagogical writings from musicians active during that time will show (obvious examples include those of Josef Lhevinne or Heinrich Neuhaus).[9] Furthermore, many would have found themselves pigeonholed on national grounds, explicitly attacked for being Jewish, for being women, with many attributes of their playing directly linked to such things. Very few non-white performers were ever heard in the West, and the opportunities for performers from non-monied backgrounds to achieve performing careers were very considerably fewer. The repertoire performed was very much smaller – works such as Schubert’s late sonatas or many of Liszt’s works or for that matter Bach’s cantatas, save for a small few, were practically unknown. Also – and this is no small point – the number of those prepared to explore earlier instruments, rather than assume that the most modern ones always entailed ‘progress’ in all respects, was very much smaller than today, and those who did occupied a very marginal position in performing culture. We need to remember these aspects of early twentieth-century performing culture, every bit as ‘policed’ as our own if not more so, rather than view it through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.

If looking for more possibilities than appear to work musically at the moment, Leech-Wilkinson might consider more of the phenomenally creative work going on in early music, for example the medieval ensemble Graindelavoix, the manic virtuosity of some of the Italian baroque groups, or the vast amount of embellishment enacted by Robert Levin in performances of Mozart Concertos, so relentless as to be mannered. I am sure that he is aware of these; the choice to ignore them is one reason I believe his contribution is essentially polemical in nature.

Many of the other points made in the podcast concerning beliefs and aesthetics constitute more straw man arguments. I could add something about where the boundaries might lie in terms of in some sense playing a score,[10] but there is not really time for that. Leech-Wilkinson may have been open to a whole variety of performances of Machaut’s Mass,[11] but I wonder how he would have felt about one in which each part were played on swanee whistles, with most pitches extremely unstable. Everyone has their limits.

Ultimately, I think the majority of this says more about Leech-Wilkinson’s personal projections than about classical music. Furthermore, I do not believe many musicians need his permission to arrive at performances with which they feel pleased and creatively empowered.



[1] See J.P.E. Harper-Scott, ‘Musicology, the Middlebrow, and the Question of Elitism’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, edited Ian Pace and Peter Tregear (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[2] Richard Taruskin, ‘Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207.

[3] See in particular Carl Dahlhaus, Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, translated Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Dahlhaus was not the first to theorise musical realism, for sure – one can find much earlier writings in English by Norman Cazden, ‘Towards a Theory of Realism in Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 2 (1951), pp. 135-151, not to mention in the work on socialist realism of Boris Asafiev in the 1930s, specifically his Muzykal’naia Forma Kak Protsess (St Petersburg, 1930) and Intonazia (St Petersburg, 1947). A full translation into English of both of these (viewed as two volumes of a complete work) can be found in James Robert Tull, ‘B.V. Asaf’ev’s Musical Form as a Process: Translation and Commentary (Volumes I-III)’ (PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 1977); commentaries in English on both can be found in Malcolm H. Brown, ‘The Soviet Russian Concepts of “Intonazia” and “Musical Imagery”’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4 (1974), pp. 557-567; Gordon D. McQuere, ‘Boris Asafiev and Musical Form as a Process’, in Russian Theoertical Thought in Music, edited Gordon D. McQuere (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), pp. 217-252; and Ildar Khannanov, ‘Boris Asafiev’s Intonatsia in the Context of Music Theory of the 21st Century’, Rasprave, vol. 44, no. 2 (2018), pp. 485-501. However, Dahlhaus went further than others before him in viewing nineteenth-century music in terms of a dichotomy of romanticism against realism, such as had long been applied to literature and the visual arts.

[4] See various of the essays in Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1990); Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1995) and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2002).

[5] Taruskin writes ‘If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures that it prompts, then why not cut out the middleman and go straight for the words and the pictures?’; Richard Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2009), p. 349.

[6] Charles Rosen, ‘The New Musicology’, in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 270. First published as ‘Music à la Mode’, New York Review of Books, vol. 41, no. 12 (23 June 1994), pp. 55-62, review of books by or edited by Lewis Lockwood, Elaine R. Sisman, James Webster, Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, Ruth A. Solie, Steven Paul Scher, Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.

[7] Since giving this paper, I found out that the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2020 ‘will also feature the South African soprano Golda Schultz and a newly commissioned work by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi which responds to the pandemic and will include sounds from the lockdown’. See Mark Brown, ‘BBC Proms: details announced of festival behind closed doors’, The Guardian, 3 July 2020, at .

[8] For a good study of this, see Edward Alexander, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and the Modern Temper (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973).

[9] Josef Lhevinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, with a new foreword by Rosina Lhevinne (New York: Dover, 1972); Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, translated K.A. Leibovitch (London: Kahn & Averill, 1993).

[10] This is a subject I pursue in my ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, in Unfolding Time, edited Darla Crispin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 151-192.

[11] About which he authored a book: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut’s Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Ethnographically sourced experiences of Ethnomusicology – a further response to the debate

With thanks to various people who looked at earlier drafts and provided helpful feedback.


Since posting online my position statement on the question ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’ (the full debate can be viewed here – see also Michael Spitzer’s statement here and other responses to the event here), there has been a fair amount of negative responses from some ethnomusicologists, not least on social media. I would genuinely welcome open, scholarly, and proper responses to the specific arguments I made (they could be posted in the comments on this blog, for example); the comments I have seen have mostly not been of this nature.

I would urge all respondents to look up the ad hominem fallacy, and consider whether it is applicable to my statement, which I believe is entirely focused upon the arguments of the authors I discuss (save for the concluding statement, which parodies common ethnomusicological parlance to make a point).

Furthermore, few of the above seem to have read the first paragraph of my statement:

‘…when the object of study for this sub-discipline is Western art music, and it is on this body, or even canon, of work in English that I intend to concentrate today’

In that context, the following should be very clear:

Much of the ethnomusicological work I have been looking at does not simply consider the relationship between sounds and contexts, but brackets out sounding music out entirely. . . . What remains is what I call ‘musicology without ears’. This requires little in terms of traditional musical skills (in whatever tradition), and I believe the more this achieves a dominant or hegemonic place within contemporary musical education, the more it contributes to what I have referred to elsewhere the deskilling of a profession (meaning the loss of many skills specific to that discipline). Musicology can become little more than a more elementary sub-section of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, but rarely with the breadth or depth of methodological awareness to be found in some of those other disciplines (though I have wider doubts about cultural studies/industries in general). This can facilitate the ominous possibility of musical departments being closed or simply incorporated into others.’ [reverse italics added for emphasis]

My critique is focused on method, not on the object of study. There is a surplus of excellent ethnomusicological work, some of which I mention in my statement; other especially notable examples which come to mind include David P. McAllester’s Enemy Way Music: a Study of the Social and Esthetic Values as Seen in Navaho Music (Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum, 1954), Paul F. Berliner’s The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), or Christopher Alan Waterman’s Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990). The position statement, however, deals with a very specific canon of texts, much celebrated by a small group of authors, and which I find to be deeply problematic (and in some cases hardly deserving of the epithet ‘scholarly’) for reasons outlined in the statement, which will be explicated in more detail in a forthcoming article.

In another post on the subject, I gave some further reflections and posted a long section from Paul Harper-Scott’s book The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism relevant to the subject. There I mentioned a forthcoming response to the position statement given in the debate by Laudan Nooshin. I think it will suffice to say that several of the traits I identified in the ethnomusicological work I considered in my original statement – a tendency within the subdiscipline towards ‘endlessly telling its own story and creating its own canons of hallowed figures’ (not least in the statement contained in PPT 6); an uncritical attitude towards any work which simply ticks a sub-disciplinary box; a rather dismissive attitude to the one thing which defines musicology as a discipline – the study of sound; the padding out of material with often rather unremarkable verbatim quotes; the use of loaded politics and language (‘musicological hegemony’, ‘occupied musicology’) to try and close down debate, rather than more measured critical engagement; and the need to denigrate Western music and established forms of musicology in order to bolster ethnomusicological disciplinary identity – are all clearly on display in that paper. To talk about ‘occupied musicology’, using a backdrop of the Israeli Wall, and thus to imply her own situation, and that of other ethnomusicologists, is akin to that of Palestinians living under brutal occupation, is hyperbole unworthy of a response.

Nooshin’s claims made elsewhere in the debate that imply that ethnomusicologists know all about Western music, but only they are qualified to have a view on their own field, are not only self-serving and territorial, but simply not credible. An Arnold Whittall or a Helga de la Motte-Haber is in a position to make broad statements about twentieth-century music, a Carl Dahlhaus was on the nineteenth-century, a Manfred Bukofzer on the Baroque era, and so on, all after many years of intense study of these periods. I feel reasonably able to make some broader observations on Western art music since 1945, though know there is still plenty more to learn. It takes a very good deal of study, perhaps a lifetime, to be able to make broad statements about ‘Western music’ (or ‘Western art music’), even within restricted geographical and/or chronological parameters; it seems unlikely that scholars who may only have studied this music at undergraduate level or in general survey courses can pronounce expertly on it.

I am especially interested in Nooshin’s remarks about a ‘fetishist focus on music as sound’, which prompts me to ask why she would describe in this way the type of study which arises out of a fascination with music and its most defining attributes? This common type of Anglophone ideology, by which focused study on sounding music is viewed as a decadent or effete triviality (as literary study has also been viewed at various times in the English-speaking world) compared to the more supposedly weighty social sciences, is highly concerning. I also strongly disagree with that rather narrowly utilitarian attitude which privileges social function over art. A study of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s contrapuntal practice, of orchestration in late-nineteenth-century French composers and the influence of Berlioz’s Traité, or of approaches to phrasing and rhetoric in the work of contemporary performers (as was undertaken by Franz Kullak in the 1890s, one of a great many examples which disproves Nooshin’s erroneous claim that traditional musicology has only recently considered performance), or developments in crooning technique and genre in line with new microphone technology and employment at the hands of Frank Sinatra and others, are not of lesser value than a focus group study of iPod preferences on a particular housing estate, or an interview with the composer of music for a specific computer game, despite the surface topicality of these last two examples. Nor are studies of the provenance of lesser-known Icelandic sagas, of archaic and classicising tendencies in the poetry of Vasile Alecsandri, or the relationship between post-1945 Polish experimental theatre and the earlier work of Zygmunt Krasiński, then Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, less relevant than a study of celebrities’ choices when appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please. The arts are not to be valued simply to the extent that they overlap with elementary and broadly populist sociology or other more ‘relevant’ disciplines, or are superficially contemporary (nor should the study of, say, sixth-century history be dismissed in the manner of  the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast). And what evidence is there that the study of music in the context of war, or torture, has any more impact upon these latter fields* than the study of techniques of motivic or cellular transformation in one composer’s work might have upon other composers looking to develop these techniques?

Nooshin’s attractive idea of ‘a more holistic field studying music in its broadest sense’ is not what I actually find in the work I surveyed, in some of which music is just mentioned in a token manner, in the context of otherwise essentially journalistic writing. In her paper she refers to ‘music in all its diversity and beauty: as physical movement, as behavior, as ideas – something that people think and talk about and that plays a central role in and shapes their lives’, implying that no-one other than ethnomusicologists had considered these things. In fact, none of these subjects are at all new to traditional forms of musicology (nor various other disciplines), but they supplement and enhance the study of sound rather than replace it. The study of physical movement without sound is theatre or dance. The study of behaviour without sound is psychology. The study of ideas without sound is philosophy. All of these are highly sophisticated disciplines in their own right; few scholars could plausibly claim mastery of all of them. But the  exclusive use of questionnaires and interviews to deal with these subjects is a very narrow approach, just as they are for the study of music. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ (a term wittily decried by the musicologist Mark Everist) can sometimes amount to ‘Jack-of-all-trades-ism’; drawing upon other disciplines can be extremely valuable, for sure (and is nothing new), but to enhance a field of study, not to compensate for lack of real expertise in any one discipline or artistic field, or to satisfy those who hold the study of art in low esteem. It is difficult to see how the claims being made by Nooshin for ethnomusicology could ever be fulfilled when sound becomes a dispensable factor.

Anglo-American musicology is in a poor state, for sure, compared to some of its counterparts elsewhere, in the UK beset by a wider educational culture involving cuts to primary and secondary musical education leaving many upcoming students ill-prepared, a wholehearted embrace of commercial music above most else since the Thatcher years, a broader political and intellectual culture disdainful of the arts in general and music in particular, not to mention the insidious effect of the Research Excellence Framework, which reduces much research to attempts to game that system. It is perhaps not surprising if some ethnomusicology reflects these various trends, which can be found equally in various other sub-disciplinary areas.

Nooshin wrote ‘I, however, do do ethnography and for this debate thought it would be useful to put the central questions to some real people, mainly but not only ethnomusicologists.’ With this in mind, I have done similarly, and asked six musicologists (three men, three women) and one post-graduate student (other students promised replies, but they have not yet materialised!) about their experience of ethnomusicology or ethnomusicologists in their professional or academic life. None of these are at my own institution or any at which I have worked, but I hope Nooshin will agree they are ‘real people’ (I am not sure what would be another type). The results are varied, but some are quite disturbing. These were provided to me in writing and I have not edited any content.


Musicologist A: My experience of ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists is quite varied. I’ve taught in departments where there was no such thing, and those departments certainly felt rather old-fashioned and crusty. I’ve also taught in departments moving towards a large new intake of ethnomusicologists, many of whom were barely trained in traditional technical skills for western music and who I felt were basically doing forms of sociology, cultural history, anthropology, etc. with something often unreflectively called “music” (whether ‘soundscapes’ or practices) as a central focus. Certain individuals, especially if they were converts from western music training, can in my experience be evangelical in tone about their work. Enthusiasm is fine, but this tone comes with a censoriousness that implies that anyone not interested in the popular/rural/amateur music(al practices) of country X (X being country far away from the UK, expensive to fly to, with a better climate) is at best a Eurocentric prig or at worst a racist Nazi. This evangelism extends in research presentations to a rather flat, uncritical reporting of what the people of country X say about their music(al practices). As someone whose research materials all pre-date sound recording and whose human subjects are all dead, I find ethnographic emphasis on live interviews/recordings rather limiting and am often horrified at the uncritical attitudes scholars have to the ‘texts’ generated by these methods. The best ethnomusicologists I have worked with have strong critiques of authenticity narratives, skepticism about the general way the ethnographic method is conducted, read books (including historical writing and writing about history) and use various kinds of theory that pervade other kinds of humanities scholarship. The worst simply show what look like lovely holiday snaps, give a pseudo-literary, ‘atmospheric’ narrative about their trip, and quote their interlocutors at length, nodding sagely. I would say that the latter are in the vast majority. I tend to view them as well-meaning but misguided. One former colleague (who works on Western music and has left the UK to work in a country where there is basically no ethnomusicology) said privately that they are ‘those who think they will go to heaven because they work on the music of poor people’. Given that I do not know any ethnomusicologists who did not attend fee-paying schools, which places them in the top 7% of the country’s children economically, I imagine they view their work as a kind of penance. (I realize I’ve described ethnomusicology as a kind of religion, which is what it feels like. In some departments it feels like they want to convert or excommunicate everyone else until there’s one united church of ethnomusicology. I’m a heretic, I’m afraid.).


Musicologist B: Ethnomusicology is no longer just a complementary area of study and research in tertiary music departments. It has become the locus of an ideological ‘given’ that compares, whether overtly or by implication, but always unfavourably, the music of ‘authentic’ popular genres, or non-Western societies, with an apparently hopelessly sexist, racist, decadent and/or anaemic Western art music tradition. That tradition, and the skills needed to study it, can, thus, be dismissed as a field of serious study ever earlier in undergraduate degree programmes. We are at growing risk of losing our capacity to understand our own musical culture, let alone anyone else’s, as little more than the triumph of the here and now, with no historical depth or genuine critical potential.


Musicologist C: Just before I arrived at my institution, where the Music Department was going through a period of development and planned expansion, an ethnomusicologist had been appointed to develop and build on what was deemed to be a burgeoning research and teaching area. I got on well with the ethnomusicologist. After some time, with little development in the area, the institution appointed another ethnomusicologist to try to stimulate the desired development it had seen little return on. After a year, it was clear neither ethnomusicologist got on with the other and they effectively refused to work together. Within a decade, both had moved to pastures new. There are no plans to employ ethnomusicologists in the department’s strategy going forward.


Musicologist D: What really surprises me is how nasty my colleagues can be, both to staff and to students. Intellectual disagreements are to be expected, and I can even understand how passions can rise in meetings where the redesign of the degree programme is being discussed. But ethnomusicology colleagues victimize staff who work on “imperialist” music, by which they mean Western classical music: they shout them down in meetings, alleging that they are the only people who are interested in the social contexts of music and therefore have a moral high ground. This makes everyday dealings unpleasant. But what is worse is that they single out students for humiliating treatment in lectures. Over the years I’ve had many students tell me how they’re been laughed at by ethnomusicology lecturers, told that their views (for instance that it’s worth studying the history of music, or that there’s something of interest in nineteenth-century symphonies) are conservative, “have been unspeakable since at least the 1990s”, and so on. Again, what the students describe isn’t just disagreement: it’s real vitriol, communicated with a clear sense of moral as well as intellectual superiority. If ethnomusicologists practiced what they preached, they would be open to the varied perspectives of their colleagues and their students. But far from that, I find too often that ethnomusicologists feel that their way alone is right, that their knowledge alone is permitted, and that the views of their classical-music Others should be suppressed.


Musicologist E: Ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists have not loomed large on my horizon; as student I avoided the optional lectures on Egyptian music just as I steered clear of contemporary music. At the university where I got my first job, there was one ‘proper’ ethnomusicologist in the traditional sense, i.e. somebody who studies a non-European musical culture and its practices. With my own interests in early music, we were both a bit odd in the context of this very ‘contemporary’ department, so we shared eye-rolling moments when other colleagues universalised from their 20th-century perspective. There was also one other colleague who took an anthropological approach to Western music, but since the study of instruments (organology) is quite a traditional and non-controversial pursuit in the academic system where I received my training, I never thought much about how his approach differed from – or was superior to – any other way of dealing with this topic.

Recently I had the opportunity to engage with several ethnomusicologists at a conference in Germany. Their interests were refreshingly diverse: the construction of Inka music as masculine, heavy metal, music and migration, German Schlager, transnational music pedagogy. Since the conference was organised by music historians and mainly dealt with issues of historiography and biography in the digital age, the ethnomusicologists helpfully slanted their presentations in a way that translated well into more historical ways of thinking, weighing carefully the advantages and disadvantages of our different methodologies (for example, how the traditional format of the artist’s biography is currently adapted in ethnomusicology). Funnily the ethnomusicologists were the most critical of a recently set-up programme on ‘global’ music; we all agreed that it would just encourage cultural tourism. Exchanges were lively but not hostile – you can always get a lively discussion out of any bunch of musicologists if you throw the word ‘canon’ into the ring! However, it should be noted that we were in a decisively non-competitive situation and didn’t have to squabble over curriculum design, student numbers or funding allocations! And perhaps it does make a difference that ethnomusicology has been built into the fabric of Musikwissenschaft from the start (starting humbly as ‘vergleichende Musikwissenschaft’) – so historians are less tempted to belittle it as merely a complement to their ‘canon’, and ethnologists are less tempted to cast themselves as revolutionaries who have to overturn the entire discipline.


Musicologist F: In my professional capacity as a musicologist who has worked at a number of universities in Europe and the US, I have never encountered any of the institutional tension that is reported elsewhere between faculty in musicology and faculty in ethnomusicology. In my professional experience, both subject areas have happily co-existed, often strengthening and enhancing one another whilst also giving students an impressive intellectual base and a broad range of skills. The fact that the two have happily co-existed in my experience is largely due to the fact that they are not competing with one another. Neither is under threat.

The debate at City University is timely, and I found it to be hugely informative in terms of the professional experience of others and the light it shed on the current state of the discipline(s). The one aspect of this debate that relates directly to my experience, as a self-confessed WAM musicologist, concerns the increasing marginalization of Western art music in academic musical spheres, whether on the conference circuit, in the classroom, or in publications. Here, I am acutely conscious of an epidemic that Ian Pace has been at pains to warn us about for some time: the deskilling of musicology. And, as Michael Spitzer notes in his contribution to this debate, in this respect, there is not a two-way street between ethnomusicology and musicology.

The merits of embracing ethnomusicological approaches in WAM musicology (to speak only to my own perspective) seem self-evident and were rehearsed very well by Bailey, Lind, and Nooshin at the City University debate. The urgent issue, to my mind, is not the riches to be gained in such an embrace but, conversely, what stands to be lost by the marginalization of Western art music. Approaching this from the point of view of skills, the marginalization of WAM musicology risks losing something which cannot subsequently be regained. Unlike ethnomusicology, which speaks to music through a range of disciplinary voices, WAM musicology relies on a knowledge of the music itself, to employ another much maligned phrase. The difference to my mind, then, is illustrated by paraphrasing Johannes Brahms: there are those who think in tones, and those who think about tones. There is room in our academic world for both, and an abundance of the latter. The former are an endangered species. Let’s not risk losing any more of them.


Post-graduate student: My experience of ethnomusicology during my undergraduate degree was not an entirely positive one. Whilst certain lecturers in the discipline were undertaking research and teaching, which I felt (both then and now) to be important, just as many espoused positions, which I found frustrating. I shall attempt to outline my reasons for this as follows: Whenever certain ethnomusicologists in the department broached the topic of Western Art Music, there was an assumption that only middle class people, who had been to private schools, could like classical music. Indeed, we were told that, as we were studying for a degree, sold to us on the basis that most of us probably quite liked Beethoven, that we almost certainly were too. Whether this is a fair comment or not (in the case of my educational background, it actually wasn’t), I nevertheless found it a strange one. We were told, so often, that Western Art Music relied on universals, that worked to corrode and obfuscate the memory of historical privilege. We were told that ethnomusicology was the antidote to such empty universality: it focused on the particular, the autochthonous, and the ‘local’. Ethnomusicology seems to rely on universals of its own, however, although these are never acknowledged. They posit the spectrum of people interested in classical music as apparently homogenous and unchanging, who are, by and large, often separated, by their privilege, from the economic concerns of ‘ordinary’ people. Ethnomusicology posits musicology as its universal ‘Other’, then, both morally and academically, so that writing a paper on something non-Western becomes a morally courageous and virtuous thing to do. I’m not sure I agree, largely because value judgements, of any kind, were often censored by certain members of staff. This is, of course, a perspective quite common to much of present academia, non-musical as much as musical, and whilst it is a point I disagree with, it is not grounds, on its own, for the character assassination of a discipline. My experience, however, was that it was often adopted by certain lecturers, as a portentous display of personal morality (i.e. it is ‘immoral’ to dislike something), and I could never escape the feeling that there was a somewhat more insidious subtext to these demonstrations. As an example, a friend of mine was marked down in their essay on globalisation and world capitalism, for implying that there might be something in any way negative about these things. It just wasn’t a scholarly perspective, apparently. The fact of the matter is that much of this music only exists because of capitalism. Often it does not constitute the type of ‘authentic’ experience ethnomusicologists claim it to be; it is a cultural commodity in the same way that a can of Coke is. If one is to criticise the economic system, which incubates it, however, then one cannot escape criticising the musical object, either, and one is forced to make value judgements. On the other hand, if one keeps their distance, one can keep on writing about the musical object, without really passing comment on its ethical or political efficacy. This is economically and morally convenient, perhaps (i.e. one can publish more and more, whilst feeling themselves to be doing good), but it is not good scholarship. For one, it is descriptive, as opposed to critically incisive, and second of all, it claims to be doing moral work, when it actually amounts to no more than laissez-faire, postmodern fingering. The situation, for those people being studied, remains exactly the same, whilst the reputation of the academic in question grows. The criticism of this perspective would no doubt be that it is elitist to think things can be altered for the better. In an argument that sounds no different than a defence of Victorian economic conservatism, if one were to intervene in the lives of disadvantaged people, then it would be contrary to their own ‘choice’. In the current academic vocabulary, one might be accused of robbing them of their ‘agency’. However, I think it is misguided to think of many people’s lives in these terms. ‘Choice’ is a predominantly middle-class concept. If you live a hand-to-mouth existence, then choice has little to do with it; one does things out of necessity. By making out that those people studied have choice, and by celebrating their music, they simultaneously celebrate the secret necessity of those choices, which, to my mind, is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.


For reasons detailed in my original position statement, I make no scholarly claims for this method of investigation. Nonetheless, I believe these results demand some sober reflection.


[* It could of course be argued that the study of the use of music and torture might help equip a musician who wanted to write or locate some new music which would have maximum effect in such a context. But I can hardly imagine students and future torturers and dictators at the School of the Americas being deterred by some musicological study. ]