Over a long period, I have repeatedly considered the question of ‘practice’ in an academic context, its meanings and implications, following on from earlier writings on the relationship between practice and research (see an index to earlier blog posts on this subject here), then most recently two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need of different means to integrate practitioners into academia (see here and here) and then a blog article intended as a dialectical response to those articles, drawing upon a wider debate of the relationship between ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’, mapped by some onto ‘practitioners’ and ‘scholars’ respectively.
These subjects remain not only complex, both in theory and literally in ‘practice’, but also touch upon raw nerves amongst various scholars and practitioners. I have encountered significant rage from some composers at the suggestion that perhaps, just as few would suggest that musicological scholars are experts in the practice of composition, they might show some humility towards musicologists as well, rather than assuming they know just as much about their discipline and are equally adept at teaching it. Much of this anger likely relates to competition for positions in an ever-more competitive and narrowing academic job market, especially at the current time, when at least in some other arts/humanities subjects (not music as of recently, though over the last two decades a significant number of music departments and programmes have closed), departments have been making sweeping cuts (for example Roehampton University).
There are those who choose to view the humanities on one hand, and practical work and the sciences on the other, as fundamentally opposing groups of disciplines, not only in their subject matter, but also in approach, method, ethos, and so on, so that any teaching which relates to the former is antithetical to the latter. I fundamentally disagree, and believe this view is at odds with the defining aspect of a university (as also argued back in 2010 in an article by Terry Eagleton, claiming that a university without humanities would be like ‘a pub without alcohol’). But that issue, which leads back to C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on The Two Cultures, is extensive and for another article.
What I want to consider here is the role of universities in terms of engagement with practice, both practice undertaken by academics themselves, and that conducted in external institutions. In many ways I believe this is not just important but quite vital in a range of disciplines. Those working in medicine or other health sciences need to draw upon knowledge garnered through practical medical work, and conversely develop research with practical application. The same is true in study of business and the law. A literary scholar is engaging at a deep level with literary practice, just as is a music analyst with the musical equivalent. The extent to which academic research into the arts does or should feed into practice is more open to question, however. Certainly in the case of music there is a body of musicological opinion which is markedly sceptical about the value of performers using the findings of analytical and other research to inform their own performances, noting the very limited to which a great many important performers have done so over history, and how often their performances are quite distinct from what might be implied by such research. The same is true of composition – someone once wrote sardonically about composers who think that if one can analyse music, one can compose it, it is just a matter of doing the process in reverse! Nonetheless, in other ways performers do frequently draw upon knowledge in the business of crafting a performance (sometimes simply that garnered from listening to other performances), as do composers, and so such criticisms may in reality relate more to specific strategies than the use of external knowledge per se in the process of artistic creation.
Some areas such as pure maths (at the heart of my own first degree) may be different with respect to practical engagement; certainly from what I recall 35 years on a good deal of pure mathematical research was undertaken without primary consideration for its potential application, which was something to be discovered later on. I believe (but am no expert) that a similar approach underlies some work in other ‘pure’ sciences, and this is certainly true of those non-empirical branches of philosophy which believe in the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.
But in fields for which large areas of practical activity exist, it would be foolish to deny the value of engaging with knowledge drawn from this realm. I will from this point limit my discussion to artistic areas, as they are those which I know best. The key issue, in my view, is not whether but how one should do so. And this is where I would emphasise the vital aspect of a critical engagement with practice, and also of academic independence. When dealing with external practitioners or institutions dedicated to practice, one is confronted with those who have their own distinct desires, needs, economic imperatives, possible rivalries with others, and so on. Not all of these things would make for good scholarship if taken at face value. An artist may prefer a scholar to focus exclusively on their most successful work, not that whose merits might be more questionable, but a scholar who did so and claimed to be examining the work in its entirety would be disingenuous. The same is true of one examining a theatre and the responses of its audiences, who chose to bracket out from their study those audience responses which were less positive, in order to avoid upsetting the theatre owners. To use a dichotomy underlying a blog post from almost a decade ago, this is the difference between scholarship and PR. The scholar’s task is to follow where the results of their research lead them; to bury some of these in order to keep an external partner happy, or for that matter to undertake the research in such a way as to make such an outcome inevitable (as I have criticised sharply in some varieties of ethnographic work which eschew a critical view of the views and perceptions of their subjects, and as such can amount to hagiography), is to foresake one of the most fundamental aspects of being a scholar.
What I am arguing here is that critical scholarly engagement with practice (which can certainly involve partnerships and the like) should not be confused with a subservient relationship to this. This may not be the preference of some external practitioners, but if they wish for academic input, they need to respect the integrity of the academics involved.
But what about if the scholar is also the practitioner, as is the case in various forms of practice-as-research, artistic research, and so on? I have argued repeatedly that the question of whether certain practice is research is rather banal. In some ways most practice can be construed as such (as most practice requires answering certain types of questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and a range of methods for doing so), but what really matters is the quality of the research. This is not necessarily synonymous with what satisfies other aesthetic criteria (in an artistic context), but has to do with the generation of new knowledge expressed in the form of practice, which can have at least potential application for others. So an artist who develops new approaches which are found to bear aesthetic fruit, and upon which others can draw, would in an academic context generally be thought of as having done valuable research of a type.
Not all do accept this view of research (certainly artistic researchers have on the whole rejected the idea that research can simply be located in practice itself). I do accept it, but I am less sure of the extent to which it maps onto other forms of research, or qualifies the practitioner to undertake the latter, other than in some exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, while the quality of such research can, I believe, be gauged simply by close inspection of the practical work engendered, I wonder of the extent to which those engaged in assessment really do those to an intense degree (hardly possible if one has a wide range of things to assess), or whether the research quality is based upon finding the work more-or-less seems to resemble some of the qualities presented in associated verbal material (see my post on the 300-word statements that are essentially mandatory for submission of practice-based outputs to the REF).
Once again, I return to the question of critical engagement, or self-critical engagement. A practitioner can describe their work, even give a significant amount of detail about how it was put together, upon which ideas, philosophies or other determinants they have drawn (as one will find in many an ‘artist’s statement’), but that does not amount to this form of engagement. What can be difficult for practitioners is an attempt to ‘stand outside’ of their own work (and the immediate concerns of their own self), especially when in other contexts they are required to ‘sell themselves’ and in the process hide any acknowledgement of weaknesses, doubts or other more ambivalent self-reflection. Of course academics are far from immune to the latter tendency, which can sometimes dampen the possibilities of their own self-criticism, but they do function in scholarly arenas where if they do not do so, others can and often will follow up on vulnerabilities in their work, which is not always the case in more precious artistic circles.
The much-debated and contested field of autoethnography appears to me to hinge on the critical element; critical self-reflection upon personal experience, for the purposes of generating new knowledge which wider potential application is not the same thing as simply writing about oneself (which would be closer to autobiography), though a fair amount of writing and lectures I have encountered which is billed as autoethnography comes closer to the second category.
One anecdote may explain how these different attitudes and approaches can also inform teaching and its relationship to external practice. At a former institution, I was once tasked with developing a module on ‘Music and the Marketplace’, which I conceived as a broad consideration of the ways in which market forces inform music and music-making over a period of history, how other forms of music-making less subject to market forces might be different in nature, and so on. I had to be away for a period for some external performing work, so someone else took over the module design in my absence. When I returned, it had been changed to something like ‘How to get ahead in the musical marketplace’, which was a long way from my original design. What is the difference exactly? The module as originally conceived was about a critical engagement with the practice of music-making and its economic context. This by no means need imply a primarily negative view of market forces or their effect upon music, but should have been able to entertain a plurality of possible perspectives based upon careful and critical study of the phenomenon. The latter would have been entirely an ’employability’ module. Now I am certainly not going to deny the importance of such things. Some aspects of such teaching, such as how to write a CV or design a business plan, I would categorise as ancillary rather than academic skills – certainly they are things which do not necessarily require a university in order to be learned. But if employability skills become the only or primary things taught in a university context, or the attitude associated with them underlies the majority of teaching, I wonder then if a university degree has become more of a training course, lacking true intellectual inquiry and critical thinking that is more than purely functional. This touches on the question of a humanities approach – critical thinking in that context I would associate with a relatively dispassionate search for ‘pure’ knowledge, rather than subsuming that knowledge to narrow external criteria such as ‘how do I get ahead?’ or ‘how do I keep certain people happy?’
Any academic department without critical scholars will be impoverished in terms of the wider mission of a university. Practitioners can be critical scholars/thinkers as well, as can external partners, but one should not assume this is necessarily the case and certainly not ignore the possibility that other agendas may condition their thinking, either as expressed explicitly or implicitly assumed. In order that universities fulfil their central mission, it is vital to engage with practice, but in a critical and independent manner, whilst recognising that simply undertaking practice and promoting it in a certain way is not at all the same thing. And institutions must take care to guard and protect scholars’ independence from external pressures, simply to ensure that what they do remains scholarship. Then there is no reason to worry that engagement with practice entails any necessary conflict with the imperatives of research.
There was an interesting recent social media thread from Cambridge Professor of Music Marina Frolova-Walker, following reading of some unhappy Twitter exchanges between musicians and musicologists. I am not exactly sure which these were, but there had recently been a particularly angry set of responses to conductor Kenneth Woods after his suggestion that some young musicians were not getting the type of training and experience they need when the National Youth Orchestra spent half a programme on some contemporary works – which I have not personally heard – which he described as ‘tenth rate’ and not featuring much of consequence for the players to do. Some may not realise that any type of value judgement is rejected and even despised in some musicological quarters, and so many responses were to pile on Woods for daring to indulge in such a thing, which is after all ‘subjective’ (as if a lot of what musicologists say and write does not also fall into this category).
Anyhow, Frolova-Walker (who I am citing with permission) suggested wryly (and perhaps only half-seriously) that musical practitioners and music academics might to best to keep apart from each other, since they inhabit such different worlds, value systems, use different vocabularies, etc. This provoked considerable debate, some including myself reluctant to throw in the towel when it comes to fruitful interactions between practitioners and scholars. One of Frolova-Walker’s conclusions was ‘performing is about advocacy, musicology is about criticism’. From a position of high respect, I want to consider this dichotomy further. For the purposes of this post, I define ‘scholars’ as those who produce generally written outputs in the standard forms (article, book chapter, monograph) for academic publishers; ‘practitioners’ as those whose work is primarily in the form of practice – performance, composition, artistic installation, recording, video, etc.
This issue, which I have touched upon in earlier blog posts (see here, here, here and here) is naturally very close to my own heart, as I straddle the worlds of performance and scholarship. Sometimes I like to think this makes me able to bridge the two worlds, but equally often I can feel estranged from and sceptical about both. Frolova-Walker’s point about different vocabularies employed by practitioners and scholars is highly familiar; even such basic terms as ‘the canon’ or ‘Western art music’ are found much more frequently amongst scholars than practitioners, in my experience, whilst few scholars are happy with ideas of ‘musicality’ and the like.
I have recently published two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need for universities to facilitate higher academic status and progression for a range of practitioners in the performing arts (see here and here), questioning in particular the use (in the UK) of the Research Excellence Framework as the primary measure of the value of their work. This short article is in a sense a rejoinder to those from a different perspective which realises the limits of the field of practitioners, after advocating for their academic integration.
The concepts of ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’ can of course have a variety of meanings or emphases. ‘Advocacy’ can mean a basically supportive though not uncritical view of some phenomenon (such as some artistic work), but can also mean either a rigid or even a defensive attitude towards such a thing, which brooks for no dissenting views, and thus can be dismissive of such views, or even try to pathologise those who hold them. ‘Criticism’ can imply something a primarily pejorative view of a phenomenon (in that sense, the direct opposite of advocacy), but here I believe it was intended more in the manner of ‘critique’, relating to a more dispassionate evaluation of a phenomenon (in the case of musicology, this could be an aesthetic critique, an ideology critique, or other type of commentary or analysis of musical phenomena undertaken with that degree of critical distance that is generally believed to be the best approach for a scholar).
Can or should musicologists be advocates? The former Regius Professor of Music at Cambridge, Nicholas Cook, thinks they should not. In a 2003 article (‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), pp. 249-261), examines a range of types of advocacy found in musical writing – for individual composers and performers (especially in biographical writing), for rock musicians by demonstrating various qualities within their work, advocacy for new music, arguing for its merits in the face of marginalisation, for early music, and political advocacy for the writers’ informants in ethnomusicology. Cook is especially scathing on forms of advocacy for new music which positively valorise its alleged resistance to consumer culture (breaching Godwin’s Law in a hyperbolic passage in which he compares the view of one protagonist expressing such a position, Anne Boissière to a tradition of thought which ‘fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”‘ (p. 257)). But in terms of advocacy based on value judgement, after surveying in particular the relationship between this and analysis at the hands of the likes of Heinrich Schenker, Carl Dahlhaus and Rudolph Réti, Cook delivers the following pronouncement, ending in a formulation reminiscent of Leopold Ranke’s view of the job of history:
It seems to me that the idea of the musical academy acting as some kind of quality control, with musicologists or theorists issuing admission tickets to a canonic hall of fame, is way past its sell-by date, and that the prerequisite for a more open-minded approach to musical culture than musicology has traditionally had is a more modest intellectual ambition: to register, to describe, to establish the facts as they are. (p. 259)
While taking Cook’s views seriously (though not his outrageous slur on Boissière), I disagree with this rejection of value judgement and advocacy in general, reject his caricature of ‘musicologists and theorists’, and find it hard to imagine such a view coming from a practising musician, who would have a different personal relationship with the music in question. (I also do not believe there is such a thing as ‘establishing the facts as they are’, somehow free from the interpretive lens of the academic who is doing that (though this is no sense to take a post-modern ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to relatively objective factual data), but that is a different matter.)
It is hard to see why one would wish to spend a very considerable amount of time or energy on studying music if one did not care about it, or at least find it fascinating. The exceptions might be if one has a passion for history, sociology or another discipline distinct from music, so one studies the music to learn more about the wider history, the society from which it comes, and so on. I have spent some fair amount of time considering what I consider minor and now-forgotten works in various traditions, not in order to uncover ‘lost masterpieces’ (though it is of course a bonus if one finds something really striking in such research), but rather to gain a wider understanding of the context in which other music which I do value was developed, or to comprehend better developments in style, genre, and so on.
Nonetheless, there are basic principles developed in the humanities which I believe continue to be as essential as ever in musical scholarship: maintaining a key awareness of the range of data available and its limitations, not ignoring inconvenient findings if they might interfere with a priori theories or conclusions, familiarising oneself and engaging critically with existing secondary literature and recognising the relationship of one’s own work to what has already been achieved, understanding that the assumptions, tastes, priorities and values of other times and places may be quite different from one’s own, and most importantly here, maintaining a degree of healthy critical distance from one’s subject, so as to be able to assess and interpret it in a more balanced manner, while avoiding the types of highly subjective judgements which rely essentially on whim rather than more substantive and detailed appraisal. For music, I would add the avoidance of pronouncing on music without having heard it (or, where music has been published but either never-yet performed, or no recording exists, studying the score as the next-best thing). Furthermore, in general I believe it is better if scholars are at least guarded before making blatant political pronouncements which assume the reader share their own particular ideological convictions. If the arguments and interpretations are made in a rigorous and well-substantiated fashion, the reader is perfectly capable of drawing their own political conclusions.
I do enjoy immensely reading scholarly work on music (of all types and traditions) by those who clearly have a passion for it, including on occasions when I might not share the same aesthetic view as the writer, at least initially. I may hear some music which makes an impression, but not always be clear to myself why this is the case, and am always interested to know more of its workings in order to understand more about my own reaction. Amongst large bodies of work, such as Marenzio’s Madrigals, Haydn’s Symphonies, Schubert’s songs or Miles Davis’s albums, I am interested in reading those intimately familiar with such bodies of work and their arguments for why some parts of these oeuvres might be especially distinctive. I (and I am sure a great many others) am perfectly capable of still having my own view after such reading, and of course there has always been lively debate amongst different people about aesthetic matters; Cook’s view of such advocacy as a type of hegemony appears to assume that readers will inevitably have an opinion imposed on them, and presents them as essentially passive. By contrast, as I have argued in a review-article on his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), I can find Cook’s stand-offish approach clinical and alienating, objectifying and removing the life from music by treating it like a laboratory specimen. It is more ‘open-minded’ to allow for advocacy, at least of certain types, than to attempt to have it banished from scholarly writing, as Cook seems to wish.
However, to give the range of Cook’s arguments the proper consideration they deserve, some of the more questionable types of advocacy within musicology he identifies do certainly exist. The line dividing some supposedly scholarly writing on popular music from that which might appear in a ‘fanzine’ is not always carefully drawn (not least because popular music scholars are not so often well-versed in the types of more detailed perspectives on aesthetics which can be found elsewhere, including in some popular music journalism or other non-academic writing). In and outside of ethnomusicology, ‘activist’ writing can be an unedifying spectacle, eschewing attempts at scholarly balance and critical distance in favour of bald assertion of political points, to an extent that I would question whether some such work really qualifies as scholarship. And, as I said earlier, there are forms of advocacy that rest either on the simple fact that such a view is commonplace, and has been over an extended period, or the assumption that there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees (an approach which unfortunately permeates such composer monographs as that of Lois Fitch on Brian Ferneyhough, of Pirkko Moisala on Kaija Saariaho).
The works of Fitch and Moisala may be amongst the most egregious examples, but they epitomise a wider phenomenon within writing on new music, one of the areas mentioned by Cook (about which I have been writing much for publications recently, and on which I am preparing a longer blog post). A very large number of practitioners working in research positions in UK academic departments are involved with new music, including myself. In this context I have found the dichotomy between advocacy and criticism to be most acute.
While a few practitioners also produce written and other outputs (as I do, some of which have no direct or obvious link to my own practice), others are focused primarily or exclusively on their practice. More to the point, they frequently also operate in external non-academic arenas, sites dominated by different values, attitudes and behaviours than one might find in academia. Practitioners need to network with those with the power to grant them commissions, performances, exhibits, etc., have to advocate strongly for their own work and sometimes that of others, and often cannot risk expressing views or perspectives which might give grounds for any scepticism about their work, or which those with whom they network might not favour. I have certainly found this when attempting to engage some in the new music world with issues of the development of that world in the aftermath of fascism, or the more specific example of the patronage of new music by the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung, bearing in mind that the Siemens family fortune rests at least in part on their having run slave labour camps at Auschwitz, then spent 30 years trying to fight against compensation claims from survivors – not what those who have received or wish to receive a major grant from this organisation, or their acolytes, wish to hear. Often they are part of wider networks of practitioners whose collective reputation impacts upon their own individual one, and so need to be staunch advocates for these networks.
Amongst practitioners operating in more highly commercialised environments (compared to that of new music, which can at least occasionally entertain some more critical discourse within its ranks), in which total loyalty to an employer, an outfit, a brand, etc., can be utterly essential, and anything else might have one ostracised, these issues may be even more acute. Some of those working in academic departments who are also pursuing commercial work can be mystified when they encounter the type of critical discourse pursued by musicologists, uncomprehending of why one would engage in the type of thinking which may be at cross-purposes with what might help one gain work. Similarly, study of the music industries/business can take radically different forms depending upon whether one is seeking to understand their workings, operations, priorities in the manner of a scholar, or trying to look at (or teach others) how best to succeed in them. Nonetheless, there are important figures with commercial connections who can move between such discourses.
In many institutions and conferences, I have sat through a range of events billed as research presentations by composers, improvisers, sound artists, other performers, and so on, which amount essentially to a form of self-advocacy or even self-promotion, somewhat akin to ‘artists’ statements’. The practitioner will describe what they do, why they chose to embark on a particular project, how they set about this, often with some liberal number of references both to other admired artists to whose work this practitioner links their own, and to certain intellectual figures (Gilles Deleuze or Bruno Latour are often a safe bet, and increasingly a few writings by anthropologist Tim Ingold, though rarely his highly critical articles on ethnography or soundscape), as well as to key concepts from philosophy and other fields (not always presented in a manner which accords with their recognised and established meanings) as part of the process of situating one’s work within a research culture. This is distinct from autoethnography (which, for reasons too intricate to go into here, but which I have argued elsewhere, I do think is often quite deeply linked to the framing of practice-as-research), which is not simply autobiography, but at best entails a critical perspective on the self and the practice in which they are engaged. Occasionally one will encounter a bit of critical self-reflection in such research presentations, entertaining the possibility that it entailed failures as well as successes, but I have found this increasingly rare, as if the practitioners are loath to engage in something which might make themselves seem vulnerable.
Of course there is an important place for this type of self-advocacy, but the values and attitudes it embodies appear at cross-purposes with those of more disinterested humanities scholarship. For this reason, situating practice-research (for this type of presentation invariably relates to such a thing) within the humanities may be a category error.
It would also be unfair to associate this type of advocacy and lack of critique exclusively with practitioners. I have certainly encountered it frequently in some presentations on popular music (in the manner mentioned above), certain types of ethnography dominated by simple representation of the views of the informants, with little critical interpretation (to such an extent that some such work can appear hagiographic, as I have argued in a variety of cases – see my two essays on ethnography in this volume), or those soundscape studies which consist primarily of listing a range of sounds to be found in a particular location, whereby the simple fact of the sounds being variegated appears to suffice for interpretation.
Some of those can rub off on those working in academia who are not themselves practitioners, but write about contemporary work (this was a recurrent subject in the 2017 conference at the University of Surrey on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’, where it was fascinating to find how many scholars working on different artistic disciplines had experienced the same issues, conflicts of interests, and so on). Many will share faculties with practitioners, sometimes working in fields related to those about which they write. In my experience, such practitioners, especially those who believe their fields to be beleaguered or little recognised in a wider social context (as with many in new music, not least electroacoustic music), can respond very negatively and even in a hostile fashion that the sort of critical writing which might do something other than simply flatter the type of work they do. While this can only be conjecture/speculation, I do believe that this type of ‘peer pressure’ often has an impact on scholars, leading them to avoid more difficult critical questions, aesthetic or otherwise. But this compromises the depth and integrity of their research, and in my view has led to scholarly writing on new music remaining a very uneven field compared to those dealing with other areas, where will not interact almost on a daily basis with individuals deeply invested in such fields.
This is the type of major conflict which can result from the integration of practitioners in academia without some grounding in wider critical scholarly discourse and the values of the humanities. It can also be damaging for teaching, if one might otherwise not necessarily deem the work of a practitioner colleague itself sufficiently significant to be included in a survey of a field of work, or might wish to unpack some of the aesthetic and ideological assumptions behind their work or those of the circles with which they are involved. Here we do see advocacy and critique drastically at cross-purposes.
But I do not believe this has to be the case, so long as there is recognition the distinct qualities and types of expertise of scholars and practitioners, neither conflates these nor tries to establish a rigid hierarchy, and respects the independent perspectives and academic freedom of each. With teaching, this can be more complicated; here I would aver that on balance scholars might hold back from engaging in practical teaching, and practitioners from scholarly teaching, if they do not have considerable experience of their own in such fields. Teleological views of music history which just happen to feature the work of the composer teaching them as the telos, academic study of performance trends and cultures which are centered around the work of the performer teaching them, or abstract and dry directives on how music should be played on the basis of academic knowledge, by those who have little experience themselves of the process of performing music, are not often good practice in these respective areas.
Music-making can exist without musicology (indeed has done or continues to do so in various times and places), but musicology not engaged with music or music-making which still remains a living concern at least to some (which in no sense means any prioritisation of contemporary work), or has the potential to be so, will invite, not unreasonably, charges of ‘ivory-towerism’. Academics talking solely to each other is not always encouraging, nor an insistence that their own work is only valorised by those other academics (usually within the same sub-discipline, and often sharing a range of ideological assumptions) who by virtue of their very position can never really be more disinterested judges of the wider societal or other value of such work.
It is in my view essential that academic musicians are engaged with music and music-making existing outside of academia, without in the process sacrificing their scholarly independence. This is not about adopting advocacy wholesale, but recognising a world in which this does play a very major role, developing perspectives on this which are not blindly dismissive, but also demanding that practitioners equally recognise that academics may not share the assumptions appertaining to the particular (and sometimes small) cultural or social milieu inhabited by some practitioners.
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.
To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse the tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline.
During the contributions to Arnold Whittall’s 80th birthday colloquium at King’s College, London, Jonathan Cross linked two events: Arnold’s appointment as the first Professor of Theory and Analysis in 1982, and later in the decade the purported expansion of musicology to incorporate issues of gender, sexuality and race, methodologies from sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and elsewhere, and greater focus on popular musics and other traditions outside of Western art music. Some of the latter phenomena are associated with the so-called ‘new musicology’ in the US and its slightly milder counterpart ‘critical musicology’ in the UK.
All of these were portrayed by Cross as a general broadening of the discipline, a welcome infusion of increased diversity of subject and methodology, a natural step forward. But an academic field now in large measure antipathetic to claims of musical autonomy seems nonetheless to claim a fair degree of autonomy for its own trajectory, in a way I find implausible and even disingenuous. There may be some common determinants underlying all these apparent broadenings of the field, and both systematic analysis and the new musicology have been opposed by conservatives such as Peter Williams. Nonetheless, the wider ideologies underlying these disparate developments can be quite antagonistic, as was certainly made clear in an important interview between Arnold and Jonathan Dunsby published in Music Analysis (Vol. 14, No. 2/3 (Jul. – Oct., 1995), pp. 131-139) for the former’s 60th birthday.
The ‘new musicology’ is frequently argued to have been inaugurated with the publication of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) (UK title Musicology). Despite being replete with factual errors, Kerman’s appeal to a musicological inferiority complex, a field presented as trailing far behind other disciplines in terms of adoption of ideas from phenomenology, post-structuralism, feminism and more, not to mention his negative view of both musical modernism and historically-informed performance, as well as residual anti-German prejudice, would prove very influential.
But Kerman was also the author of the polemical ‘How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get out’ (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter 1980), pp. 331-331), absolutely at odds with what Arnold was advocating and aiming for at around the same time. The contexts for these two musicologists were very different: Kerman was responding to a particular North American situation (though he was shameless in extrapolating universal pronouncements from a rather provincial perspective), with a much starker distinction between ‘historians’ and ‘theorists’ than in the UK. In the US, a heavily mediated rendition of Schenker’s work had flowered since 1931 through his student Hans Weisse, and in the early post-war era through other students Felix Salzer and Oswald Jonas, whilst other intense analytical approaches had been developed by Rudolph Réti, Milton Babbitt, Allen Forte, George Perle, David Lewin and others. In the UK, on the other hand, as Arnold would note in a 1980 article (‘Musicology in Great Britain since 1945. III. Analysis’, Acta Musicologica, Vol. 52, Fasc. 1 (Jan. – Jun. 1980), pp. 57-62), systematic analysis had made little advance, despite a gauntlet having been set down by Ian Bent’s advocacy at the Congress of the International Musicological Society in 1972. What did exist – through some interest in Réti’s work, the ‘functional analysis’ of Hans Keller, and a smattering of other work from Alan Walker, David Osmond Smith and a few others – was occasional and patchy, and this was undoubtedly a major factor in Arnold’s co- founding, in 1982, the journal Music Analysis together with Jonathan Dunsby, with whom he would author what remains the leading general textbook on analysis in English six years later. The subject has continued to grow and develop, with excellent work from UK academics, such as Matthew Riley’s studies on Haydn and Mozart, Michael Spitzer’s work on the affective function of gesture, Nicholas Cook on analysis and performance, or Allan Moore’s work on rock, but it is difficult in 2015 to see analysis as having attained a central position in musicology as might have seemed possible in 1982. Various musicologists who assumed prominent positions from the 1990s onwards have made no secret of their disdain for this sub-discipline, sometimes inspired by American writings of a similar ideological persuasion.
Assumptions of autonomous development of the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s are belied by issues such as the wider politics of education from the Thatcher years onwards. These entailed cuts in musical provision in schools, the 1992 removal of the formal distinction between universities and polytechnics, and then expansion of student numbers. After a doubling of the number of students (in all subjects) between 1963 and 1970 following the Robbins Report, numbers remained static until the late 1980s, when during a period of around a decade student numbers practically doubled from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997, then rose steadily to peak at 49% in 2011. This move from an elite to a mass educational system occurred in parallel with attempts to erase the very real differences in preparedness and background amongst students at different types of institutions, with a net levelling effect upon many.
Much of the new embrace of popular music had less to do with genuine diversification than an enforced denial of very real differences of various forms of musical production’s relationship to the marketplace. One of Thatcher’s neoliberal mantras, ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) was echoed by many a musicologist scornful of any possible value in state-subsidised musical activity thus able to operate with a degree of autonomy from shortterm market utility. As subsidy is rare or minimal in the US, this ideology was convenient for American musicologists eager to claim some radical credentials through valorisation of the commercial whilst still appearing patriotic; it was disappointing to see so much of this ideology imported wholesale in the UK, a country with a modest level of subsidy for music compared to its continental European counterparts.
I had always thought of music, at a tertiary level, as a highly skilled discipline for those who have already developed and refined musicianship prior to entering university. This belief may reflect a background in a specialist music school in which, if nothing else, the teaching of fundamental musical skills was rigorous and thorough. Nonetheless, the importance of not allowing music slip to become a ‘soft’ subject requiring only nominal prior skills (and, as with much work in the realm of cultural studies, not requiring any particular artistic disciplinary expertise or extended knowledge) is to me self-evident. But with declining primary and secondary musical educational provision, frequently the extent of such prior skills amongst students can be quite elementary.
Furthermore, following the trebling of tuition fees in 2012 and other measures removing caps on recruitment, higher education has become a more ruthlessly competitive market with institutions fighting to attract and keep students. These various factors provide the context from which we should view the growth in many departments of types of popular music studies, film music studies, cultural studies, and some varieties of ethnomusicology, in which engagement with sounding music is a secondary or even non-existent concern. Such focus enables the production of modules which can be undertaken by those students with limited prior skills, but militates against musical analysis in particular.
We now have a situation, unthinkable a few decades ago, where some senior academics – even at professorial level – have no ability to read any type of musical notation. These academics (not to mention some of their students who will go onto teach at primary and secondary levels) may only perpetuate and exacerbate this situation for their own students. Similarly, a number of sub-disciplines of academic music can now be undertaken without linguistic skills, or much background in history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy and so on. Students have always had uneven or patchy backgrounds in these respects, but the will to help them improve upon this has also declined in various institutions. Expansion of musical study to encompass wider ranges of music and disciplinary approaches is certainly to be welcomed when this entails the cultivation of equal degrees of expertise and methodological refinement and critical acumen, but not necessarily when these are simply a means for attracting and holding onto less able students.
In short, these developments in musical higher education have seen a well-meaning liberal quest for inclusivity amount in practice to a pseudo-egalitarian de-skilling of a profession. In order to build upon the legacy bequeathed above all by Arnold for the support of specialised and rigorous analytical skills, we cannot ignore this issue any longer.
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. ]
Below is a discussion which took place in early August 2015 on Facebook between a range of different individuals, responding to my initial comments, positing that the truly hegemonic musical force in contemporary society is not modernism, nor the classical canon, but Anglo-American popular music, which is ubiquitous (I had been thinking this whilst away off the coast of Africa and hearing primarily local musicians playing renditions of Anglo-American standard hits). The ensuing discussion was so intelligent and striking that I wanted to blog it (as with another discussion from 2012 following the protest at Donaueschingen by composer Johannes Kreidler). This is done with the permission of all participants, and with a few edits.
As is in the nature of such discussions, it does not entail a closed argument by any means, and there are plenty of ‘loose ends’, some tangents, and so on, whilst the tone ranges from serious, scholarly, intense, to more flippant and irreverent. Nonetheless, I believe there are many stimulating perspectives which will be of value to anyone with an interest in this subject. I don’t want to say more on who the various people contributing are; various people will know some of them, but the point is not their status, but what they have to say here.
Comments preceded by two asterisks are part of sub-threads attached to the last ‘normal’ comment which precedes them.
Ian Pace: I read lots of hot air about classical/modernist music and ‘hegemony’ – but everywhere I travel I hear mostly Anglo-American popular music. Why is there near-silence on this being the true form of musical hegemony?
Ian Pace: Where I am away on holiday, no chance at all of hearing Boulez in the hotel. But Beyonce…..
Franklin Cox: Isn’t the most successful form of hegemony the one that no one recognizes as a hegemony?
**Joan Arnau Pàmies: Concealed ideology… Such a powerful weapon.
Franklin Cox: It’s an odd thing that happens when Marxist concepts become part of the academic circuit: they tend to lose their analytical potential, instead becoming magic charms.
Ian Pace: Actually, most of the cultural studies/new musicology types who make the usual claims are amongst the most aggressive neo-liberals of all.
**Franklin Cox: Yes, and neo-liberals dare not face the magical thinking at the basis of their worldview.
Ian Pace: I cannot imagine Gramsci being happy with this situation, nor if he’d read a lot of the writings of the figure most responsible for his UK reputation, Stuart Hall.
Alan Cassar: Your point came out when Nicola Benedetti, after promoting classical music, was recently called elitist : no one says anything about the fact that we’re bombarded by Anglo-American pop music.
Jim Aitchison: I’ve felt this for years. I would say that commercial popular music (a very wide and obviously important and fascinating field, notwithstanding) is so ingrained and so overwhelmingly suffocating and THE dominating sonic orthodoxy, and has been for so long, that one can’t imagine any public or private sonic experience not informed by it, be it if you turn on the TV when you get up in the morning, or go to the bank, get put on hold when calling HMRC, waiting in a doctors’ surgery, riding on a train and having to listen to the multi-clicking tattoo of 30 iPods, walking along a road and folks with in-car audio drive past with windows down, bass pumping on full, to sitting in your own home and having to endure someone else’s taste in music when some kind of celebration makes them think that other people’s feelings about their personal spaces and homes being invaded don’t matter in the slightest. The utter saturation of amplified Anglo-American pop music is so total, that if I say what I have just written above to most ‘ordinary’ folks, they will look at me as if I’m stark raving bonkers (so I try not to). Larson, will no doubt recognise this as we’ve talked about it before…
**Ian Pace: We need ‘Anglo-American popular music free spaces’.
**Jim Aitchison: Sometimes I feel like completely music free spaces: there’s too much music of all kinds (sometimes!)
**Amelia Young: Ian you’re too bloody intelligent for most of the world’s population who have a preference for Anglo American music! Should we not be proud that the UK and our Co-Anglo counterpart USA are so popular! Wish they would play more of the best American music like Gershwin X
**Larson Powell Jim, this stuff is like McDonald’s, a kind of anthropological lowest common denominator: I-IV-V progressions and 16 and 32 bar phrases like hamburger meat, salt chips, and fat… everyone has to love it, don’t they?!
**Jim Aitchison: Larson, to me, it really does feel like a version of a kind of sonic totalitarian thought-police. I can think of folks who believe it is their scared human right to be able to ‘express themselves’ by playing their music as loudly as they wish, wherever and whenever they feel like it. In some ways I don’t care what they listen to, but the blanket society-wide *belief* that life cannot be endured for one second without constant pentatonic rhythmicization feels like a kind of madness to me.
**Larson Powell: Yes, Jim, I agree: I think the enforced pounding is in fact the real police of our society. The one thing that is intolerable is the idea that someone might actually want to think, feel, or experience at their own tempo, without prefabricated cliche emotions swallowed whole. The whole “party”-Unkultur is conformism packaged as pseudo-rebellion: the tyranny of the teenager. Can you imagine anything more awful than a world run by high school idiots? There’s where we’re going. What REALLY terrifies me is the thought of how bad it will be when my parents’ generation, who did not grow up with canned garbage in their heads all the time, die out and we are left alone with the zombies as sole “consumers,” therefore sole arbiters of truth… then I will move to the Orkneys.
**Jim Aitchison: And I will join you!
Ian Pace: Maybe it’s time to look again at the status and value popular music degree courses, as a counter-hegemonic action?
**Alan Cassar: Popular Music degree courses are there because they allow people with practically no knowledge of music to come out with a degree and some validation. Most of these courses are a con.
**Jim Aitchison: Love to see that one tried and the reaction ensuing!
**Alan Cassar: One of the problems one faces is that employers rarely differentiate between a bogus degree (eg most of the pop music ones and some musicological ones) from a bad university and a qualification/degree from a world-class college (and if your qualifications are foreign…oh god!). Neither do accreditation bodies NARIC, etc.
To get an idea of the general level in **some** universities, one has to listen to compositions and performances from BA/MA students… It’s embarrassing and dishonest (these universities still charge extortionate fees).
Adam Fergler: Because it’s a multi-billion dollar industry and where there’s commercial success we’re supposed to turn a blind eye. Money is everything. Success from (and in the form of) money is supposed to be aspirational. Anything else has no worth. Apparently.
Excuse me while I put on my Nike running shoes so I can run to Tesco to buy an Innocent Smoothie. I’d go in my over-sized people carrier, but running and smoothie drinking is part of my branded lifestyle.
Ian Pace: McDonald’s is a multi-billion dollar industry as well. If all courses on gastronomy had to include this as a shining example of all-inclusive, multicultural cuisine, then you would have a pretty good equivalent of the state of musical education.
Jim Aitchison: That’s an incredibly apposite comparison…
Adam Fergler: One has to be fair. There’s some great Anglo-American pop music (there’s drivel, too). As far as I can see, nothing good has come out of MacDonald’s
**Ian Pace: Ah yes, but according to that received wisdom which has become an unquestioned orthodoxy in musical education, to valorise anything but the most nakedly commercial is nothing more than another form of hegemony, importing values from the hegemonic culture.
**Ian Pace: Beyonce sucks, by the way.
**Adam Fergler: Hahaha! And there I was imagining you dancing away to ‘Single Ladies’
**Jim Aitchison: (That’s just a rumour Ian 😉 )
**Franklin Cox: And when you see her singing and emoting in performance–she’s just emoting, not singing.
**Richard Wattenbarger: I’ve heard very little Beyoncé, and I doubt I’d recognize her if I heard her. So, Ian, I’m giving you a thumbs up not because I agree (because I have no basis for doing so) but because you have the chutzpah to denounce the emperor’s nakedness!
Adam Fergler: Ian, you forgot to mention that MacDonald’s relies on highly addictive and demonstrably unhealthy ingredients to get its consumers hooked.
I’m just going to leave that hanging there…
Franklin Cox: I’ve had to swallow my thoughts for a long time on this. Bravo, everyone.
**Jim Aitchison: It’s amazing how incredibly powerful the propulsion towards (self) censorship is re this subject…
Ian Pace: How about, in all places, a quota of 40% on the amount of popular music which is sung in English? Having regular exposure to other languages in popular music would be great for young people’s language skills.
**Alan Cassar That would be a good start, but for this to happen, schools must first start realise the importance of languages. One must also put things in perspective : how many teachers in the UK actually speak foreign languages to a decent level? In this case, how is one going to teach foreign songs – by using phonetics?
Ideally schools would need to encourage pupils and their families to make language learning part of home-life and for them to expose themselves to the culture of the countries where these languages originate from.
Franklin Cox: I don’t like the notion of “hegemony” much (and I’ve seen indications that Gramsci was not the saint he is portrayed as), because it’s too broad a brush and tends to neutralize opposition. It is only valuable as an initial means of shaking people into awareness, but once one is aware of a hegemony, the concept tends to neutralize response to it, because the hegemony is so all-pervasive, can’t be seen directly, has infiltrated our conceptual presuppositions, etc. That’s what I object to; once one is aware of illegitimate power, one has to be able to specify what it is and what it is doing and work to curb it. I’ve run into so many people who end up using the term “hegemony” as an sort of excuse (by one in the know, mind you) for passivity.
Ian Pace: In my most cynical moments, I say that ‘hegemony’ is a term used by couch potatoes who only want to lie back and be spoon-fed what they already know, and whinge like spoilt children when anything else is suggested.
Franklin Cox: But the notion of hegemony is useful for the commercial art world, because it really is trying to remake reality in its image. There’s a pretty good book (skewered by Taruskin and the popheads) called “Who Needs Classical Music,”, in which the author writes about how people use music as a sort of mental furniture, providing a sort of sound track to their life. They go home and settle into their favorite furniture, they drive to work as though they were in a movie, with a soundtrack throbbing around them.
**Justin Benz: I’ve known an alarming number of people who only seem drawn to music that provides backdrop to their frequent trips to the gym, i.e. the only ‘Murica-approved form of self-improvement, much like what’s allowed in an actual prison. One result of the western world’s sweeping campaign of denial against self-reflection, restraint, patience, intelligence, etc.., is that this music naturally ends up being all these people listen to when they’re NOT at the gym. I specifically have horrid memories of working in a chemistry lab and having to endure loud dance/party music for eight hours a day, because we all know that silence means the terrorists win or some bullshit…
**Franklin Cox: That’s horrible to imagine. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to cool down in my responses to most difficulties, but the one thing that enrages me still is the thumping of pop music from a neighbor’s stereo–it really drives me nuts. Luckily, we have our own house now, and I haven’t had to suffer from this for over a year (I just realized this as I was typing this note!).
Ian Pace: The study of popular music would be strong if it were genuinely historical and global. But mostly it’s a quick fix for those who do not want to have to step out of the here and now.
Alan Cassar: Ian , but then will it belong to music courses?
Franklin Cox: Tia DeNora evidently did a paper or book studying how some bureaucrats in the UK piped classical music into certain areas as a means of reducing rowdyism, etc., using this (if I remember correctly) as a demonstration of the manipulative nature of classical music. How odd that she would focus on the rare use of classical music–comprising probably .00001% of the existing cases of the use of music in public spaces to control crowds–as her focus of concern.
Franklin Cox: That’s how hegemony works.
Ian Pace: Quite so. She is the person who wrote a book on Beethoven’s career, without engaging with the music, and without appearing to be able to read German.
Franklin Cox: The book on Beethoven is one of the most embarrassing things I’ve seen. Rosen skewers it effectively, as does Kivy.
**Ian Pace: Have a look at this if you haven’t already seen it, especially footnote 33, on DeNora. https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/musicological-observations-3-multicultural-musicology-for-monolingual-academics/
Ian Pace: This hegemony thing, like – can’t you see how children from primary school onwards, all over the world, are force-fed Ferneyhough? It’s an outrage, and the clearest sign of white male privilege. 😦
Ross Feller: Wait, what? I thought I was the only one force-feeding Ferneyhough. Ha
Anne Ozorio: The hegemony stems from the domination of the English language, further exacerbated by the dominance of the internet by English speakers. Ignorance and insularity feed upon each other, Eventually everyone comes to believe that the narrow world of internet opinion “must” be right.
Ian Pace: Not just in the internet – throughout the educational sector as well.
Anne Ozorio: and the more people hear the dominant dogma, the more they believe it and forget their own culture
Larson Powell: The reason why this kind of orthodoxy about popular music is never challenged is that Anglo-Am pop has been the most effective and influential means of spreading a certain kind of semi-egalitarian, but also deeply resentful, chauvinistic and anti-intellectual lower-middle class culture (and its attendant political position or ideology) worldwide. The European Continent – France, Germany – could not produce this sort of cultural virus, since there were too many archaic survivals from court, church and aristoratic cultures, too strong a tradition of étatisme. But Anglophone culture is the triumph of the lower middle classes, who can ONLY admire the likes of Beyonce, since all of them think: I could do that too! I could play three chords and sing out of tune too, and if only I got lucky I too could be rich and famous! But confront that same mentality with a string quartet, or Proust, and they know they couldn’t “do that too,” so they can’t admire it. since it threatens their petit-bourgeois Ressentiment — which is the real key to a lot of pseudo-left cult stud, unfortunately. Anglopop is the most faithful servant of Anglo-Am cultural imperialism, hiding under specious claims to ‘democracy.’ The best escape from it is to speak other languages comfortably. (The rulers of Anglodom are doing their best to make sure few English speakers are ever able to escape the narrow confines of their own culture.).
Franklin Cox: There’s a real-world factor as well: one of the keys to weakening the Soviet bloc was evidently Western popular culture, and especially popular music. When the rock sensation hit, people in the East bloc wanted to hear this music, but could rarely get access to it. Governments tried to create their own pop groups, but none of them had the magic allure of the Rolling Stones. The Sword and the Shield, based on the Mitrokhin archive, has descriptions of KGB reports assessing the subversive effects of Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd. One musician I knew toured the Soviet Union with a rock band shortly before the end of the USSR and told me about the overwhelming impact of the music. Our analysts figured this out pretty quickly and by the 1960s were switching the focus of artistic outreach from high culture (which is how Cage, Cunningham, and others were able to travel around the world) to popular culture. In addition, the economic impact of popular music was at one time forming significant amount of economic activity; I used to joke that if you criticized pop music during a recession, you might be accused of harming the economic recovery. I think both of those factors–international image and economic impact–have been significant in validating popular music studies within the academy. There’s another factor, which is that popular music and arts are one area that African-Americans and minorities have played a large role, so I can see good reasons to avoid blanket denigration. However, there’s a big difference between the superb jazz musicians of the 20th century and Beyonce and company, and I don’t have any moral qualms about pointing this out.
Ian Pace: There are plenty of minorities working in McDonald’s too.
**Franklin Cox: That line has been tried as well. After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, McDonald’s got lots of good press for being one of the largest employers of minorities in the inner cities, and one of the few “legit” career paths for them.
Anne Ozorio: Yet there is/was plenty of popular music in other cultures.
Larson Powell: But how much of it is just an imitation of the US? Would this all have happened at all without US influence? I doubt it very much. Franklin’s point about the Cold War is well taken – this is, of course, uncritically hyped to the sky by many US academics as being somehow emancipatory, but much of the effect of it is the destruction of any idea of artistic or craftsmanly authority beyond commercial “success.” This is the main point of Americanization: to destroy any and all cultural alternatives to US global domination, while pretending the latter is somehow “democratic.” Central to this is the destruction of any idea of cultural authority outside that of the mass market; which is why Adorno remains, even now, the arch-enemy of this creed.
Larson Powell: (So much of this fake rebellion was already skewered back in the 1960s by figures as otherwise dissimilar as Lacan, Foucault and Habermas… but the more time has passed, the more the orthodox dogma that this was all “progress” has become entrenched, whether in the university or elsewhere, to the point where one cannot criticize the dogma publicly anymore without instantly being labelled “fascist,” “racist,” etc. etc.)
**Franklin Cox: Larson, there’s also the aura of the natural–the release from oppressive restrictions, etc.–about so much of the reception of and publicity for rock music in the early years. The reception in the Soviet bloc was really interesting, though, because people were not being told to love this music; in fact, they were being told the exact opposite. There was something genuine about this, which I find fascinating. Something as simple as listening to entertainment music with no serious political content was viewed as threatening to the regime. Although of course, much of what was seen in this music was a projection–something exciting happening “over there”, in another land full of wonderful cars and shops loaded with food that few people could visit. It was smart marketing on our part to push this product. But it is an awfully shallow representation of American culture, and a thin basis on which to define freedom. And it’s a serious problem when academics can’t distinguish a rationale that served as effective marketing overseas until recently (the Islamic radicals are reacting precisely against our entertainment products and are using them against us) from a serious ethnomusicological or sociocultural analysis of this music.
**Franklin Cox: I know you don’t like Arendt much, but one of my favorite essays is her “Truth and Politics” in “Between Past and Future”. She has a wonderful discussion of the ways in which rationales that used to be confined to state policy are mixed with Madison Avenue methods of persuasion, with the result that the rationale starts to be treated as truth, and even its fabricators have trouble distinguishing the fable from reality.
Justin Benz: In the church of secularism, questioning the works of ‘the invisible hand’ is heresy.
Adam Kondor: Did not some old Chinese theorists write about the relationship of music and power? Consciously or unconsciously there is always a relationship. You need to “synchronize” people. One beat, one folk. You don’t need an emperor materialized in flesh and blood but you need the function of the emperor. (Actually the Chinese emperors were also non-existent as persons for the majority of the people ruled by their ‘name’, by the function.)
There is also some mathematics showing that the rich must be richer: the tendency for concentration of resources, power, narratives, etc. is a natural fact. Languages spoken by small communities are just dying out. Not much you can do against it, particularly not on some moralizing ground.
(Note: this is not an argument FOR pop music. Over-saturation is lethal, no doubt about it.)
Anne Ozorio: The US did not invent popular culture. Just because Anglos don’t know, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Therein the dilemma
Larson Powell: We’re not talking about the same thing. There are light years of distance between la France profonde, the world of French peasant culture, of Eugen Weber”s Peasants into Frenchmen, of bransles de Bourgogne and ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira on the one hand, and Anglopop on the other. Global Anglopop has destroyed local popular cultures. I wonder what Jean-Pierre Le Goff (La Fin du village) would say about this? I am not sure it makes much sense to call Beyonce and French or Italian popular customs (those that Pasolini saw destroyed by TV) by the same name. We need a better terminology. It is precisely the attempt to claim that all of this is just one and the same “popular culture” that is problematic.
Natalie Tsaldarakis: I feel an Adorno coming up ! You do not attack a convenient medium of subjugation of the masses to a life of idiotic or at least mindless (self)consumption. The danger is for classical music in its “pop” packaging and commercialism to become just as mindless or even obsolete. The “blame” lies in the semiotics, rather than the repertoire: adoption of sexualised images of performers (but an attractive performer or a beautiful dress per se is not the problem: the intent of achieving marketability is); rock-star gestures where preponderance of visual cues divert from accessing the actual music; and even an overconsumption of certain repertoire in pop culture manner…
Anne Ozorio: Larson, I’m talking about Asia and popular traditions there which go back hundreds of years
Larson Powell: Of course, of course! (I studied Chinese and Japanese for years…) All I am suggesting is that the blanket term “popular culture” may be too general? Isn’t the English working class culture of E.P. Thompson different from that of the countryside, or from global pop now? Modernity means the end of “the people” in the old sense (Durkheim)… so wouldn’t the word “popular” mean something different now? I think the romanticising of the popular among us Anglos is as harmful in its own way (not of course in the same way!) as German ideas of Volk…
Larson Powell: Chinese “popular traditions” included powerful millenarian religious beliefs (a bit like Joachim de Fiore or Thomas Muenzer in the West) that fed into massive peasant rebellions in the 18th c. and early 20th (see Döblin’s Die drei Spruenge des Wang-lun on popular Taoism and Jacqueries)… completely different..’
Franklin Cox: What is commonly called pop music should really be called commercial music. Popular music traditions are something different,although they are easily turned into commercial music, as long as you cut out most of the interesting bits. Commercial music is a standardized product designed for mass production and distribution. It uses whatever will sell on a large scale, so elements of existing popular music traditions are often employed as hooks.
**Alan Cassar: Thanks for reinforcing that!
How could one define in more detail ‘commercial music is a standardized product designed for mass production and distributions’?
One could possibly argue – but with caution- that in ‘commercial music’, lyrics mainly avoid a sophisticated use of language, and pathos.
Themes emphasise mainly basic emotions such as crude, graphic sex ; and basic expression of love. Political and social themes ; and references to the arts or to history are avoided. There is an increasing element of shock factor through gang-crime-related themes and misogyny in both lyrics and videos (the latter is possibly an aftermath of androgynous and homosexual imagery of the 70s and 80s which nowadays has ceased to widely shock).
Musically, the musical language tends to be basic (e.g. triadic harmony, simple melodic lines, formulaic writing, simple structures). There is also an increasing trend to refer to older styles such as funk, soul and bubblegum rock, but the outcomes are simpler.
In all of these elements,’reduced risk-taking’ is omnipresent.
Sound engineering has also been affected and has become increasingly ‘homogenised’ : heavy pitch correction has reduced expression making voice sound ‘perfect’ (which translates as ‘too perfect and unnatural’) ; heavy compression is often used in order to make the music sound louder and therefore be more suitable for radio and club use.
Conspicuous comparisons of ‘standardisation’ could be drawn with fast food industry.
Larson Powell: Franklin, couldn’t agree more; think of how complex the rhythms are in Greek popular music, not to speak of Africa; not much to do with endless 8-16-32 bar phrases.
Ben Leeds Carson: The dissemination of popular culture normally goes hand-in-hand with hegemony. Hegemony is that condition in which the oppressed are complicit in their own subordination; popular culture and hegemony mutually reinforce one another, almost necessarily. Of course not all consumption of popular music is internal self-oppression…subcultures can and do turn popular music back on itself in defiant acts of self-determination. But when music “belongs” to an activist audience in that way (rather than to what Adorno called “official culture”) that’s not really popular culture.
When musicologists run off at the mouth about the hegemony of European Art Music, they’re usually just trying to map their undergraduate comprehension of post-colonial theory onto the landscape of the world’s musical cultures, i.e. the British enjoyed a hegemony of moral and economic power in pre-revolutionary China, so, someone blandly imagines, the dominance of European classical music among Chinese audiences must be just an extension of that kind of cultural power. This neglects the core of arguments by Said, Spivak, etc. (whether you favor those or not), which tie hegemony distinctly to modern cultural production. The Chinese didn’t come to love Mozart in some sort of isolated propogandistic endeavor. They came to love Mozart mostly within the same array of cultural forces that we did. Some of them learned to hear Mozart and Stephen Foster as part of the same bourgeois symbolic world—as part of the same (popular) cultural system, in which it’s possible also to love low tea in a rose garden, or lacey furniture drapings—in which case the term hegemony applies. Others learned to love Mozart as a foil to all that, as a testimony to the possibility that musical ideas and their relationships actually matter. In that case pin the hegemony on other forms –
**Franklin Cox: Ben, I think we’re talking about the same thing, but I still think it’s useful to distinguish popular culture from commercial culture. The oppressed are complicit in their oppression in practically all cultures and cultural subsets, so following your definition, any popular music would be hegemonial. But if hegemony is tied to modern cultural production, then pre-modern popular musics can’t be hegemonial, or at least in the same way (this is part of the problem I have with the “hegemony” concept– once one tries to pin it down, it seems to me to turn into a distinction without a difference). However, there are popular cultures that don’t map onto the dominant culture, especially in all those periods in which the upper classes pretty much sealed themselves off from the rest of society–which is a good chunk of world history. But maybe the term “popular music” is too loaded and “folk music” is better; the problem here is that “folk music” has become a sort of genre instead of a descriptive term that could apply to various cultures.
**Franklin Cox: Commercial music at the top of the charts now is pretty much like fast food: it is written by a team, using standardized progressions, vocal figures, lyrics, and emoticons. An artist is affixed to the product and lip-syncs it while writhing or emoting on stage. There is pretty much nothing there at all beyond a burp of energy.
**Franklin Cox: Ben, when you say “subcultures can and do turn popular music back on itself in defiant acts of self-determination”, what kind of music do you mean? Political art on the right or left (non-state supported, I mean)? I’m just not sure if there’s a clear dividing line here. Precisely the same popular tune could be sung in a saccharine way and be popular or have new lyrics and be delivered with a critical twist. But I doubt that anyone in the reception community for either would claim that one song is popular art and the other isn’t. You’ve brought up an interesting way of looking at this, but I’m not sure if I can see such a clear distinction between these cases that I could consider one popular art and the other not.
**Franklin Cox: Whatever Brecht intended, the Threepenny Opera became popular art of a sort, didn’t it?
**Ben Leeds Carson: Popular culture is best defined not as those forms that are “most popular,” or “most successfully commercialized,” but as those forms whose meaning arises ***specifically as a result*** of its dissemination beyond the boundaries of a particular community, i.e. across subcultural and cultural distinctions and into those larger landscapes (and a plurality of “cultures”) connected by mass media. No, certainly, there is no rigid distinction (!), as there are countless cultural forms that function in one way (i.e. are valued, interpreted, etc. in one way) in their community of origin, and in other ways across a greater cultural breadth. But it’s a rigorous one.
Big Mama Thornton made a kind of music that most of Elvis’ audience could only regard as aesthetically (and also morally) remote, as “belonging” to a group of midwestern working-class dance-hall musicians (and their audiences), in a way that resisted legibility to outsiders. Reactions to Soulsonic Force would have been similar, had any of hip-hop’s future bourgeois/suburban audience heard them prior to 1983. That doesn’t prevent either Thornton or Bambataa from making popular culture; in Thorton’s case by taking up a Lieber & Stoller song like “Hound Dog”, essentially a kind of minstrelsy, to romanticize her own cultural remoteness for a wider audience. The distinction isn’t rigid because certainly some of her former audience could love “Hound Dog,” and her new audience could love her earlier material, but it’s rigorous in that the diverse set of values and meanings that “the blues” acquires in the 1950s among pre-baby-boom suburban teen audiences is barely recognizable to the mostly rural adult swing-era audiences to whom Thornton and her contemporaries were writing/performing. Same goes for the way you and I likely interpreted Run DMC and Public Enemy ca 1986— which, speaking for myself and my white-and-latino peers in a rural farming town, was a kind of cultural revolution, a whole new way of understanding the world. But that worldview has little to do with the set of meanings and values that drove hip-hop’s early formations in Bronx housing projects. And yes, how the music makes the transition from one set of meanings to the other is almost always hegemonic; almost always a kind of minstrelsy. For her peers, Thornton can be a hundred things in a hundred different songs, but to become a “blues singer” (or for Redding to become a “soul singer”) the material needs to be repainted to emphasize what a popular audience wants black music to be.
In this formulation of the term “popular music,” the quaint and unilluminating categories of “folk” music and “court” music are actually in the same—sure, one might be vernacular and the other institutional, one oral and the other written, but aside from those superficial distinctions they share a reliance on conventions that are learned and reinforced in one particular social context. We can enjoy an early 17th-c French dance suite or a West Virginia fiddler’s jig without being in their native cultures, but we know they’re court music and folk music in part because we’re not in that court, not part of that folk.
Both of those “white” musics can be subordinated and repurposed in popular culture as well, as long as they are insulated from modernity (either by history, in the case of the baroque, or by class, in the case of the fiddler). It won’t surprise anyone to hear those W.Va. fiddling gestures in “popular” music (commercial country music), but now the gestures’ rhetorical power is flattened in order just to serve (again) the simpler cultural function of identity formation—the fiddler no longer suggests we should turn a dance partner, or listen for a B-section in which the step changes, the way it would register for its “folk.” Now the fiddle just says “I’m country” or “I’m nostalgic for small-town life where probably there were barn dances.” On the other hand, it might surprise you to know how many baroque ritornelli can be found in the tracks of albums by Method Man or Bone Thug n’ Harmony. Their producers aren’t as much interested in counterpoint as they are in that unmistakeable sense of the militant gothic that 18th-c counterpoint puts across almost as well as Middle-English calligraphy on a black silk-screened t-shirt. (I do hope it’s clear, by the way, that I’m NOT arguing this is equivalent to the hegemony in which contemporary black music operates.)
The relative “popularity” of this or that painter or sculptor or novelist in one era or another doesn’t qualify her as popular culture, and the relative unpopularity of a group like the Grateful Dead doesn’t disqualify them either. It’s a question of cultural function. I like to think of popular music as music that the audience injests, or maybe just wears, passively, as a badge of identity, in a way that’s indifferent to what’s expressed in the material creation of a recording or performance. In the mid-1990s, college-aged men “dress up” in ska and reggae and gangsta rap, while their younger sisters dressed up in “80s” music to launch Spears’ and Aguilera’s careers. 20 years later, those audiences’ kids are entering their own college dorms, and they flash “gangsta” signs on Facebook and listen to the exact same hip-hop that their parents did, without even realizing that it’s old. That’s how far removed they are from the moment of production. And yes, for some audiences, Beethoven and Bach even Stravinsky can be “worn” that way.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Franklin Cox wrote: “following your definition, any popular music would be hegemonial”
“if hegemony is tied to modern cultural production, then pre-modern popular musics can’t be hegemonial, or at least [not] in the same way”
Yes and yes. For me at least. I can’t really think of the term “popular culture” in a way that would be compatible with personal or community self-determination. And there’s very little use in applying the term popular culture to anything prior to the rise of the “middle class” in the 19th century.
Some exceptions of course—you see popular culture’s characteristics to some extent in the promotion of late 18th-c opera in Italy and France (and the sale of sheet music in the latter), but those exceptions prove the rule; they’re nascent formations of a bourgeois consciousness.
**Ian Pace: I’m not sure if that definition of popular music wouldn’t encompass a good deal of art music, and exclude some commercial work.
One factor insufficiently filtered into this debate is the hegemony of music sung in English.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Folk (Volk) music, as a concept, also comes into existence in the 19th c, along with nationalism and that same rise of a middle class who wants to think of itself as having an epic past (cf. J.G. von Herder). Folk, art, pop; all of these are modern pretenses that quickly evaporate when one examines pre-modern musical practices. Still, the term “folk” is meant to describe a music that’s “authentically” tied to an ethnicity and a language, and so although the term is recent, it can describe pre-modern musics. The “art music” badge, likewise, is retroactively applied to early composers whose art matters to us even though their audiences didn’t share our 19th-c sense of the term “artist.”
**Ben Leeds Carson: The term “popular culture” (and popular music) absolutely should include some art music in some of its contexts.
**Ian Pace: I wonder whether we need the term ‘popular’ at all for music. I would sooner look at the relationship to commercialism.
**Franklin Cox: Ben, the problem is that terms are coined or altered in order to deal with changes in reality, and one can’t arbitrarily declare them null and void on the basis of earlier historical practices. “Revolution” doesn’t mean “return” anymore, even though it had that meaning (“or if revolution be the same”) longer than it has the present one. The more important question for me is if terms can be clearly understood and delineate useful distinctions. I’d rather use existing terms and try to sharpen them than throw them out and try to invent a whole new set. Perhaps I’m just a bit irritable about this right now because I’ve spent a month delving into neo-Riemann terminology. This is a perfect example of chaos ensuing when a group of very bright and headstrong theorists go hogwild trying to build the perfect symbolic mousetrap.
**Ben Leeds Carson: I agree with Frank as well that commercial music and popular music are overlapping but non-identical concepts. Frank invokes commercialism to refer to standardization, mechanization, and, well, thoughtlessness; i.e. a mode of production meant to maximize profit. But surely not all popular music fits into this category, and surely it’s possible to produce a Woody Guthrie or a Beethoven CD with that in mind. We shouldn’t want any of these terms to be mutually exclusive of one another.
I think we need the term “popular” for the same reasons that Adorno and Horkheimer needed it, which is to understand that there are cultural forces at work in the music, which would be otherwise unaccountable. To substitute the term “commercial” puts emphasis on the agency of producers who seek the profits associated with music … and on the puppet strings they might hold above their audiences. That would exclude examples of independently produced music that, when popularized, impacts culture deeply in ways that profiteers couldn’t have envisioned. It wouldn’t really make sense to describe the music of Duke Ellington or Johnny Cash as “commercial” music, but they were prominent & central forces in American popular music and culture.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Frustration understood Frank, but I *think* I’m using the term “popular culture” the way that Adorno and Horkheimer used it.
Vernacular (from linguistics): arising from unlearned usage and rhetoric
Folk: music associated with a cohesive ethnic or social group, usually oral and usually “authentic” to a group in the sense that it’s insulated from modern institutional influence.
Court: music cultivated by a politically empowered group, usually to ceremonialize its power, and/or to formulate a distinction between the civilized and the uncivilized
Art: I’ll pass on defining this 🙂
Popular: culture whose value isn’t situated within a community, but within the mass media that connect varied audiences and communities in the modern era, mass culture separated from its means of production
Commercial: music made for commerce and profit
**Franklin Cox: Ben, maybe we’ve been arguing at cross-purposes, which is what I suspected. I was originally talking about the sort of canned pop music that has by and large taken over the popular music field. Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, M. Cyrus, are all products. This is commercial music, plain and simple, produced in accordance to audience surveys. Adorno had a wonderful early essay form the 40’s about this process, in which a lyrics team hitches up with a songwriting team, matching word and tone to audience survey. This is all part of the field of popular music, using “popular music” purely in a pragmatic sense. But most of the time popular music can’t be reduced to commercial music, except when the entire field has lost its vibrancy. I do think that pop-rock in the US has become so formulaic now that most of the best-selling songs are pure commercial products.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Not only across purposes (perhaps) but across comment-drafts. 😉
**Ben Leeds Carson: I’d like to say, though, that I don’t think we’re in much more than a semantic disagreement. I belabored the definition of popular culture mostly to offer the perspective that, from a dialectical materialist view anyway, hegemony is pretty much built into it. I agree that commercial music is nefarious too, for reasons you’ve outlined, and minor points aside we pretty much agree that the distinction is important because the two categories are problematic in different ways.
**Franklin Cox: Indeed…I just now saw your “Popular culture is best defined not as those forms that are “most popular,” or “most successfully commercialized,” but as those forms whose meaning arises ***specifically as a result*** of its dissemination beyond the boundaries of a particular community, i.e. across subcultural and cultural distinctions and into those larger landscapes (and a plurality of “cultures”) connected by mass media.” reply, which is wonderful. Okay, I think I can buy most of this definition. My problems here are first that the culture of the nobles was constantly being disseminated beyond its community from the Middle Ages on, without any mass media to convey it. And second, mass media weren’t necessary for the success of the big Handel festivals in England in the 19th century. But I agree with the general form of the definition.
**Franklin Cox: I guess my old objection to “hegemony” returns: if it’s everywhere, then it’s nowhere specific. The term is only useful in a critical sense if one can differentiate its presence from its absence.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Thank you! I’m working on this stuff these days.
Yeah, I kind of see the dawn of the public concert series in Handel’s London, and the (even earlier) 17th-c appetite for virginal and harpsichord scores, and madrigal parts, in both England and France, as exceptional early examples of popular culture—these urban Londoners were unique on the planet at that time in that they were numerous, literate, and had disposable income, and had access to massive printings of editorial pamphlets, poetry books, and musical scores. The Messiah really was a “hit” in the sense that we use the word now.
Btw, popular music scholars usually regard the sheet music industry arising in the early 1800s as a form of mass media. In its proper history, popular music begins at that time with pirated copies of Haydn symphonies reduced and simplified for performance on spinnets and parlor pianos, sold to a growing middle class in Paris. The “parlor song” genre of Stephen Foster was on the heels of this—simplifying the idea of art music for popular consumption.
I’m not sure nobility tried to transmit its culture to serfs in Medieval Europe; I’d like to learn more about that. An argument could certainly be made that the religious and academic elite did the opposite, maintaining an elevated literature in Latin and preventing the undeserving from learning that language. There are other examples of cultural transmission, of course—Asoka spread governing and educational philosophies across thousands of miles and dozens of languages—but those processes aren’t driven by consumer demand in such a way as to qualify as hegemony.
**Ian Pace: My one question about the definition from Ben, cited by Frank: who gets to determine how such a meaning arises, or what that meaning is?
**Ben Leeds Carson: The most useful thing about the term hegemony for me, in teaching undergraduates, is to distinguish for them that they make choices as consumers that might lead to compromises in their own development and autonomy, i.e. that serve interests other than their own. But I agree… it’s definitely overused.
**Anne Ozorio: But the 19th cent choral thing was an outgrowth of religious singing which goes way back before the growth of classes not defined by agrarian values
**Ben Leeds Carson: Ian, I’m not sure we need, as academics, to say *what* the meanings of “the blues” are to one community or another, to know that they are different. Angela Davis’ book “Blues Divas” does a pretty good job, arguing from cultural context and testimony, in showing that what Bessie and Clara Smith meant, when they sang about jealousy and woman-to-woman competition, was pedagogical; i.e. meant to show black women the dangers of turning against one another in a racist society. But even if she doesn’t persuade you that those meanings arise in “Empty Bed Blues”, I think it’s clear that a chasm separates those blues singers’ early creative efforts from the hypersexual meanings broadly associated with them.
Bessie Smith was an educated Vaudeville singer who didn’t see herself as a “blues woman”…she sang the same repertoire as her white contemporaries, and then added the blues in the 1910s when W.C. Handy’s sheet music started to sell. W.C. Handy’s case was similar—he led a (non-stylistically-specific) brass band and taught music at a Louisiana College. After he realized his patrons were more likely to buy music with the word “blues” in the title, he recomposed previously published fox-trots and cake-walks with 12-bar patterns, and achieved great commercial success. (Btw, all of this was before you could get any of that on a record or over the radio.) There’s no doubt, from visual and textual evidence, that consumers of the blues were interested in finding some elemental force of nature within an unruly “negro” culture, and that artists like Handy and Smith could capitalize on that by suppressing their middle-class modern sensibilities. And let’s keep in mind that they weren’t corrupting the blues, they were inventing it. No one started recording the “authentic” delta blues guitarists until the mid 1920s, and by then (it’s widely testified), those musicians had changed *their* styles to match what Handy was doing so successfully. The “birth of the blues” is a process in which popular culture reshapes black identity from something pluralistic, multi-ethnic, and complex… into the giddy monolithic humor of a single 12-bar form.
There’s just as much evidence for similar distinctions of meaning in minstrelsy—which was *the* dominant form of American popular culture for nearly a century—and in swing (Ellington’s music was marketed as “jungle music,” meanwhile, in interviews, he questioned whether jazz should even have a categorical name to distinguish it from classical music), and of course in hip-hop. The problem is particularly acute and consistent across the two-century history of African American music, but as I’ve tried to note above, it also affects other traditions.
**Ian Pace: My point was really to do with how often, and easily, claims about ‘meaning’ are bandied about, but these can be so extremely subjective that their weight is often determined by the power and status of those claiming to identify such meaning (and this is itself another form of hegemony).
**Ben Leeds Carson: @Anne, thanks for the clarification … absolutely, madrigals and rounds have both folkloric and religious roots. I didn’t mean to argue that the genre arises because of popular culture. I’m arguing that popular culture is a phenomenon grafted onto it, which transforms what people will do with it, and how they’ll use it. Choral singing, as a musical practice, really changes when suddenly you have this literate middle class who can read parts, and can make a major family activity out of rehearsing and performing them. It encouraged this whole new vogue, in England, for comical and harmonically expressive Italian secular music, which would have been impossible to imagine before. Without music literacy and cheap printing, choral music is either passed down via an oral tradition, or it’s disseminated by religious authorities.
**Ben Leeds Carson: @Ian, I agree. Too many cultural studies scholars try to tell us that hidden meanings in popular culture portend a revolution of activist re-appropriations. Evidence is often sloppy, and some of them are even proud of that.
**Ian Pace: I’d be the last one to try and deny that music has meaning, but it is an amorphous thing (as with sculpture and architecture), and that can be a strength as well as a weakness.
**Ian Pace: The case of Bessie and Clara Smith seems to be one of intent rather than meaning. I’ve seen so many cases of popular music celebrated by those who are antipathetic to its politics as to feel this to be extremely problematic.
**Ben Leeds Carson: There is a subtle level, yes, at which differences in the way we might understand a particular recording are primarily about intent. But coupled with that is a larger level at which these artists shift, willingly (thus the term hegemony) to a whole new (and narrower) mode of expression, in order to serve a broader view of what a black singer is supposed to be.
**Ian Pace: Absolutely, but those two things are perfectly compatible with one another.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Yes! Which is why it’s so important to me that we define popular music without a sense of mutual exclusion from other categories like art and folk.
**Larson Powell: This is one of the best discussions of popular music I have ever read, thank you. Learned a lot here.
**Franklin Cox: I’ve just been reading Auerbach, and he makes the point that Boccaccio’s Decameron applied the high style traditionally applied to serious subjects to ordinary men and women, for a largely rich bourgeois audience. There is certainly a constant process of this happening throughout the middle ages. The exclusive, hermetic troubadour poetry was extended outside of this enclosed sphere by the Italian poets, and then via Petrarch was applied to the beloved throughout Europe, seeping down the social ladder. The romance followed a similar path. I would make the case that the massive production of dances in the Baroque period, seeping down from the royal courts, was another case of this. Yes, printing was a mass medium from the beginning.
**Franklin Cox: Isn’t one common factor in most of what is considered popular music a certain basic expertise in the style on the part of much of the audience for it, so that substantial amounts of it can be performed by the consumers? This certainly was the case in a fair amount of popular music in the US over the last century, from the people who leaned standards by heart to wannabe jazz performers and rock guitarists. What’s happening now with this is that the skills that people need for current commercial products have more to do with technology than with musical performance (although many people still imitate pop singers). No band on earth can get the complex textures and range of samples found in many current pop tunes; and the singers aren’t actually doing much of the vocal product we hear in the final mix, as autotune has become a standard factor in most of the pop tunes. Of course, all of this doesn’t apply as much to genres such as Country music or folkish music. I wonder if one could make a case that such amateur-level basic expertise is the norm in popular music traditions; perhaps an emphatic definition of the term would require it.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Hi Frank, yes; this is a common dynamic in popular music, dating back to the early 19th-c examples described above. In my view, there’s a tension here: you had to be able to put the notes in front of your accompanist sister or mother (usually the women were the ones cultivating music literacy), and you had to be able to sing it yourself. But the opposite constraint was just as important. There’d be no point in buying a spinnet and taking up lessons if you couldn’t feel that the whole endeavor made you in some way aristocratic; this is a definitive component of the bourgeoisie, of that distinctly middle-class consciousness that in its leisure time aspires to the culture of the ruling class. It’s for this reason that I don’t really think we need the term “popular culture” in reference to premodern societies where the phenomenon of modern class consciousness, I think we can agree, is unrecognizable.
In the 20th century, popular music goes through brief periods of over-professionalization, and there’s always a corrective reaction. Rock and roll is partly a reaction to 1940s post-swing crooners. Professional songwriters and producers of Brill-building pop and Motown beget the personal, rustic authenticity of Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The whole concept of DIY that thrived in late-70s punk, which perhaps resonates most strongly with your point here, was widely considered a reaction to disco (“disco” being an inadequate term for the professional songwriting and romantic pop sensibilities that included bands like Journey, Air Supply, Dan Fogelberg, the Carpenters) … but actually the two cultures’ rise and fall pretty much coincided. In our own generation the success of producers like Brian Eno and bands like Nirvana and U2, leading to the whole “Indy” concept in the early 90s, was largely a corrective campaign against overvalued professionalism in the synth-pop and glam metal of the late 80s.
I think these moments in which pop devotes itself to virtuosity and other displays of technical or intellectual prowess are the exception, and DIY aesthetics the rule. But this tension is nearly always present, and popular culture can never really be without both impulses: the romantic/heroic one that appeals to bourgeois ambitions, and the fundamental need for the music to have some element of participatory creativity that engenders a more “authentic” sense of ownership on the part of a non-expert audience.
**Ian Pace I’ve always thought of punk, at least the UK variant, as more a reaction to prog and heavy metal than disco. The US precedents in the form of the New York Dolls and the Ramones were somewhat different and overlapped in various ways with glam.
**Ian Pace (Also, I would need to see more evidential data to view Dylan and the Stones as a reaction to Motown)
**Ben Leeds Carson Yes, that’s right. Disco, at its core at least, is an over-maligned category, and usually misunderstood… To really grasp what punk artists in the US were reacting against, you need to broaden the definition as I did above, to include an array of sappy popular spin-offs that were only loosely connected to it.
The coexistence of these impulses is really evident when you consider the haphazardness of how we identify watershed moments in both metal and punk… from critical reactions alone it’s clear that Black Sabbath itself was arguably more on the “punk” side of the equation, with “blues” bands like Cream and the Yardbirds being seminal to the “prog” side. And Malcom McLaren’s role in both the New York Dolls’ and the Sex Pistols’ breakthrough performances should remind us just as much of professional, producer-driven boy-band pop as anything truly DIY.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Not Dylan contra Motown; Dylan contra the norms of early-1960s pop. What’s useful to consider at least in the case of Dylan is that in his prime he was praised for the perceived “authenticity” of his approach to songwriting (not only in contrast to pop, but in contrast to the norms of folk); the love songs in particular were about specific relationship experiences rather than universal ones. This was a starting point for “confessional” values in songwriting, in contrast to the notion of songs as “standards.” Although the Beatles, and Hank Williams, and countless blues artists, wrote their own material, the only artists prior to Dylan that had made a public point of //expressing themselves as individuals// in the act of writing a song were the great blues divas. John Lennon famously remarked that prior to hearing Dylan he hadn’t realized that songwriting of that sort was even possible.
So the contrast I’m drawing up here is along the lines of the professionalism/DIY distinction that Frank alludes to. I’m less confident in my sense of the Stones’ audiences’ relationship to the phenomenon, but the point isn’t that Dylan fans wanted something contrasted with Motown, it’s that they relished the idea that he was, in song form, being himself; that’s certainly in sharp contrast to Neil Sedaka, the early 60s girl groups, and anything Phil Spector or Holland and Dozier wrote in that notoriously professional period in pop from around 1958-1962.
In a recent scathing article on contemporary academia (‘The Slow Death of the University’, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 3rd, 2015), Terry Eagleton mentioned one university bureaucrat who actively tried to discourage academics from keeping too many books, lest they build ‘private libraries’. Heaven knows what this individual would think of my own shelves heaving with books, though I have encountered adverse comments from some disinclined to do any sort of research requiring more than a small range of standard texts.
As a passionate bibliophile, for whom when young buying books was the ultimate indulgence, I tend to be discouraged by academics in the arts and humanities who do not love or buy many books, though accept that some texts may be better kept in electronic form. But more important, for academics in the field of music, is to ask whether they love to listen to music, and as such go to concerts, listen to recordings and so on (do they have recordings or sound files in their office, has the CD player ever been turned on in years)?
Unfortunately I have encountered too many academics – not a majority, but still too many – who have very little interest in listening to music, at least in a manner which requires any sustained attention. Some even have a sneering and superior attitude to anyone who really cares about music at all, and exhibits any enthusiasm for it. I have even had the misfortune to be faced by the argument that playing music in lectures is a waste of time. I find those people of this persuasion, and much of their work, life-denying, bleak and depressing, and this tendency is fundamentally in opposition with every reason I wished to be a scholar myself, and all the values I wish to encourage in students.
There are various disciplines which, at worst, serve in large measure to enable the scholar to ‘dominate’ the object of their study. These enable the scholar to stand in a position of superior judgement to other people or the fruits of their endeavours, dissecting them in a judgmental fashion, frequently of a dismissive variety. Amongst the disciplines I would characterise as prone to this are psychoanalysis, some varieties of anthropology and ethnography, and indeed some types of ideology critique and other forms of cultural ‘interrogation’ (including some undertaken from the position of gender studies, post-colonial studies, orientalism and so on). Ultimately, many serve to flatter the scholar, and thus inflate their scholarly capital within the field of academia, but what is their wider value?
I fear that this is equally the case with musicologists not interested in engaging with, listening to, and opening up their own ears and minds to music, treating it instead at most as something to be consumed and then even excreted, or basically ignored in an aural sense. I am reminded of the character Tom Townsend in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, who opines that ‘You don’t have to read a book to have an opinion’ and as such prefers to read literary criticism rather than novels. There is no humility in this attitude, no real interest in reading or listening to others, just a desire to gain power by having the type of opinion which would impress.
Similarly, it is too often possible to write musicology entirely on the basis of others’ views of music, without ever listening carefully to it oneself. Some of this can brush off on students; I have certainly read and marked far too many essays of this type. Many appear to stem from a fundamental self-consciousness about arriving at one’s own conclusions (and being judged upon those).preferring instead the safety of the already-tried and tested; in reality just another form of essential plagiarism even when sources are attributed. In a recently published review-article of mine (‘Ferneyhough Hero: Scholarship as Promotion’, Music and Letters, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 99-112), I felt the need to comment that most of the book could have been written without any aural experience of the music (pp. 101-102), and this is far from being the only text by a music academic about which I could say this.
The very last thing for which I would argue (indeed, have argued strongly against here and here) is a type of musicology which adopts a thoroughly servile relationship towards practice, and essentially fulfils a promotional function for practitioners. Nor for various of the species of ‘practice-as-research’ which do not succeed as a genuine interplay between theory and practice (the best realisation of such work) but simply serve as a diary or other form of unreflexive documentation of practical activity. It is imperative that musicologists maintain some degree of critical distance from the object of their study, and that the integrity of their judgement is not compromised by other professional considerations (a difficult issue for practitioner-scholars, in which category I count myself; too many fail to consider these issues). I have also seen too many events featuring guest composers in academic environments which amount essentially to love-ins, whose whole atmosphere preclude consideration of any response other than adoration.
But on the other hand, if one does not in some sense enjoy music, and want to listen to it, then why spend a good part of a lifetime studying it? If the urge is to dominate, in the manner I described above, then I think this is rather sad and even a little pathetic; this type of work (which I link to the field of ‘cultural studies’) rarely has much impact outside of academia other than to legitimise broad dismissal of vast swathes of work without listening. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in a good deal of writing on modernist music; it is far easier to be told that this music is little more than a repository for white male elite privilege, and thus can be safely ignored, than have to spend any time grappling with it oneself. This combination of populist dumbing-down and cynical appropriation of identity politics characterises the worst and most destructive of all academic writing; if the majority of the humanities were to become like this, I would find it hard to mourn their demise.
Happily, there is plenty of musicology which is not of this nature, and carried out by scholars with a real love or fascination for music. Not all music is of course of equal value, and some music is worth studying even when it is not of the highest order. A fair amount of repertoire has fallen into neglect for good reason and would be unlikely to stand up well to repeated exposure today, but it can be worth studying to gain a deeper knowledge of and insight into styles, genres and practices of its time and place. Some music which served particular social functions is of interest so as to understand more about those functions and the types of ceremony they entailed, not least in the case of dictatorial regimes. I have personally even considered (only briefly, so far) why some music might appeal to those of paedophile tendencies, and whether there might be recurrent stylistic features which might even make possible the codification of such a sub-category.
I do genuinely believe that some of the now-forgotten music of the Third Reich or Soviet Union, composed by musical ideologues keen to serve the regime, should occasionally be heard in concert, however contentious this might be. Not least for the sake of us scholars who would like the chance to actually hear it live and gain a deeper sense of the effect it might have had in its original context, but also to force more serious consideration of whether such music demands an engagement beyond reduction to social and aesthetic-ideological history. In many cases of relatively prominent composers active and/or successful in the Third Reich (e.g. Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Carl Orff, Werner Egk, Wolfgang Fortner, Winfried Zillig and others), I can usually identify some musical elements which resonated with wider aspects of the ritualised culture (though not necessarily less compelling as a result – opening oneself to why they (or, say, the films of Leni Riefenstahl) might have been compelling is an essential part of understanding the elemental power of sacralised aspects of that society), but in no cases could I account for everything significant about the music in this manner. And there is no reason to assume this could never be the case for more minor composers as well. I would certainly not dismiss considerations of how ideologies of ethnicity, gender and more might be codified into musical language (I teach students to consider such things, for example in the context of nineteenth-century exoticism), especially in operatic and programmatic work, but cannot see why one would spend much time on these if the music was not nonetheless still worth hearing.
To dissolve musical engagement into a footnote to social or cultural history, sociology, anthropology or whatever is really to give up on musicology as a profession deserving of its own identity. At a time when, in the UK at least, funding opportunities are enhanced by the extent to which one can spin one’s work as being ‘interdisciplinary’, it is not difficult to see the temptation to bracket out the specifically musical content, especially when few scholars in other disciplines are prepared or competent to gain the technical and analytical skills to engage themselves in depth with music.
Musicology remains an important and stimulating profession, but should be pursued by those interested in using their ears, and with a real love or fascination for music. Others would find their time more profitably spent in other fields.
Addendum: A further thought which occurred to me when reflecting upon scholarship as ‘domination’, and thinking about the fundamental ambiguity of sounding music. This is not a mystification or other attempt to render music beyond meaning, simply to point out the extent to which it exceeds attempts to contain it within particular boxes. To me this is a strength rather than a weakness of music (and something of the same can be said of various visual arts, poetry and other media), but it frustrates the attempts of those who aim for total domination. For this reason, those possessed by the will-to-dominate frequently need to bracket out sounding content.