On Canons (and teaching Le Sacre du Printemps)

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

The abstract for this debate reads as follows:

“Dead White Men? Who Needs Musical Canons?”

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

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

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

Suggested preparatory reading:

  1. Charles Altieri, ‘An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon’, Critical Inquiry 10/1 (Canons) (September 1983), pp. 37-60 – on literature, but one of the most notable essays which is more sympathetic to canons – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1343405?seq=1#fndtn-page_scan_tab_contents
  1. Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds), Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992). In particular Bergeron, ‘Prologue: Disciplining Music’, pp. 1-9, and Randel, ‘The Canons in the Musicological Toolbox’, pp. 10-22.
  1. John Butt, ‘What is a ‘Musical Work’? Reflections on the origins of the ‘work concept’ in western art music’, in Concepts of Music and Copyright: How Music Perceives Itself and How Copyright Perceives Music, ed. Andreas Rahmatian (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015), pp. 1-22.
  1. Joseph Kerman, ‘A Few Canonic Variations’, Critical Inquiry 10/1 (Canons) (September 1983), pp. 107-125 – one of the first major essays on canon issues in a musical context, and still an extremely important text on the subject – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1343408?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  2. Simon Zagorski-Thomas, ‘Dead White Composers’ – full text, link to recording, and a series of responses can be read here – https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/responses-to-simon-zagorski-thomass-talk-on-dead-white-composers


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

The first paragraph is almost a model of leading questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving to the next paragraph:

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

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

Then the third paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

(Ibid. pp. 20-21).

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

In that context, the following should be very clear:

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

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

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

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

I am especially interested in Nooshin’s remarks about a ‘fetishist focus on music as sound’, which prompts me to ask why she would describe in this way the type of study which arises out of a fascination with music and its most defining attributes? This common type of Anglophone ideology, by which focused study on sounding music is viewed as a decadent or effete triviality (as literary study has also been viewed at various times in the English-speaking world) compared to the more supposedly weighty social sciences, is highly concerning. I 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. ]

The Hegemony of Anglo-American Popular Music – an online discussion

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.

Musicological Observations 2: Do some musicologists really like music?

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.

Musicological Observations 1: Björn Heile, Lauren Redhead and myself on the relationship between scholarship and new music

I am continually fascinated by the possibilities available to musical scholarship and by interactions between plural musicological methods, but equally disappointed by how few such possibilities are regularly taken up. I hope to blog at more length in the future on some of the dangers inherent within various musicological sub-disciplines – the so-called ‘new musicology’, ‘soft’ ethnomusicology, and some aspects of popular and film music studies in which the music becomes the least important area of study – but on this occasion I just want to offer a few quotations relating to the relationship of scholarship on new music to the practical operation of that field, hopefully as a starting point for discussion here and elsewhere.

The first is by Björn Heile, Reader in Music at the University of Glasgow and best-known for his work on the music of Mauricio Kagel. This is the opening of a key-note lecture (reproduced with permission) entitled ‘‘Un pezzo … di una grandissima serietà e con una grandissima emozione … e con elementi totalmente bruti’: aesthetic and socio-political considerations and the failure of their integration in Mauricio Kagel’s work post-1968’, given at the conference ‘Faire “de la musique absolue avec la scène”: Mauricio Kagel’, University of Nice, 24-25 April 2014 (held on 25 April).

Scholarship on new music typically suffers from its lack of critical perspective. PhD theses are written, articles and books published and whole careers made on the basis of work that does little more than trace the stated intentions of the composer in question in their work. The process could be described as bargain basement hermeneutics: study the composer’s so-called influences, his or her own pronouncements and look at the work with these things in mind – something will no doubt be found. As a result, the scholar becomes the composer’s spokesperson, dutifully explaining how the master would want their work to be understood – which, evidently, is the only way of correctly interpreting it. There are many reasons for the predominance of this approach. New music scholars are often dependent on the goodwill of their subjects: one critical remark and you may find yourself frozen out from access to the person, their work and other materials, and from speaking and writing engagements – there are a number of (in)famous examples. Furthermore, the new music business is a tight network in which composers, musicians, institutions, broadcasters, publishers, record companies, journalists and scholars cooperate in often murky ways. There is a fine line between scholarship and PR, and some so-called journals are more akin to trade magazines. Finally, the tried-and-tested method delivers results with ease: it’s relatively simple to fill any space needed with material that will appear informative and well-founded; no-one is likely to complain. It would be unfair to pick out individual examples for what is a widespread problem. That said, Charles Wilson has analysed the literature on Ligeti with respect to what he calls Ligeti’s ‘rhetoric of autonomy’, by means of which the composer sought to overstate his artistic independence, as a way of positioning himself in the compositional marketplace. As Wilson (2004, 6) argues, ‘composers’ self-representations often serve a function that is as much performative as constative. They are “position takings”, to use Bourdieu’s expression, and their assimilation by scholars as straightforward claims to truth often bespeaks a fundamental category mistake.’ He quotes numerous cases in which Ligeti’s exegetes dutifully adopted the composer’s own terms, criteria and outlook, so that their commentaries are little more than summaries of the composer’s own pronouncements. Ligeti’s is hardly a special case: Messiaen’s Catholicism, Nono’s Marxism, Cage’s Zen-Buddhism, Cardew’s Maoism, Lachenmann’s ‘refusal of habit’ – time and again one finds scholars piously repeating or paraphrasing lofty assertions, instead of subjecting them to rigorous critical scrutiny. And – you probably saw this coming – I am not at all sure whether the literature on Kagel represents an exception to the rule. Nor is it my intention to accuse you while exonerating myself. Although I have long been aware of the problem and have sought to avoid it, I am not sure that I have always succeeded. I have to confess that while I was writing The Music of Mauricio Kagel the thought that Kagel would read the book crossed my mind more than once, and I had already found out how touchy he could be. I’d like to say that I remained steadfast, but I could be deluding myself.

Back in 2011, composer and musicologist Lauren Redhead, Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, published an article on her blog following a symposium at the Institute of Musical Research on the music of Brian Ferneyhough, at which the composer was present. This presents a situation self-evidently not an issue for historical musicologists dealing with dead musicians. Whilst unable to hear the academic papers, Redhead made the following important observation (which, having seen some of the papers and other work by the participants, I believe is backed up by the results):

The Ferneyhough day was the latest in a line of academic events which I notice are celebrating authors who are still alive. My initial problem with these events is that it seems healthy debate, critique, and innovative perspectives are hardly likely to be encouraged when the composer or thinker is involved, acting as an authority and essentially vetting the speakers before they are let loose on the audience.

As one who wears two hats, both as performer and musicologist, it is rare for these issues to be far from my own mind. My own earlier writing on the music of Michael Finnissy, as collected in the volume Uncommon Ground, I now consider hagiographic and of little other than documentary value; hopefully in my more recent monograph on Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound a greater degree of critical distance has been established, but (as Heile found with Kagel) it is hard to escape the inevitable thoughts of what the subject themselves will make of it, especially in the context of a starkly hierarchical new music world in which composers’ decrees and intentions are frequently assigned an ontological priority. Recently, I have been undertaking my own comparative examination of scholarly and other writing on the music of Ferneyhough (to be published on the Search online music magazine; also a review-article on a new Ferneyhough monograph will appear in Music and Letters), and have found hagiography, unreflected employment of both intentional and poietic fallacies, and simple hero worship to be rife, in the manner diagnosed by Redhead above. I blogged about this subject a little over a year ago, arriving at what I believe were similar conclusions to Heile, and wanted to offer a few quotes from this here alongside the others:

When considering historical composers, there are many obvious ways in which listeners may also approach the music in question in ways very different from those of the composers (or others from the time). One does not have to be a strict Lutheran to appreciate Bach, nor necessarily accept some of the theological motivations proffered for some of the musical decisions. An atheist would believe these were a delusion or at least a fiction, and might consider them as the expression of some wider human issues. A similar situation can apply to the tropes of heroism which inform some of Beethoven’s mid-period work (and a good deal of subsequent reception), or more ominously the anti-semitic views expressed by Wagner in his 1850 article ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’; much work has been done considering the question of the extent to which these views, and other common anti-semitic views of the time, might have informed some of the characterisations in his music-dramas, and been understood as such by audiences of the time. If one concludes that this might indeed have been the case, this does not require automatic rejection of the work, but can facilitate an engagement with the music-dramas not simply as art works existing outside of time and place, but ones which reflect a particular set of ideologies of the time, held by the composer, which a reasonable person would today reject without necessarily rejecting all cultural work which sprang up in a context where they were indeed acceptable. Similar positions are possible with respect to representations of women, of characters from outside of the Western world, in musical works involving theatre or text; on a deeper level it is also possible to consider the ways in which abstract instrumental music might itself have grown out of texted/stage work and inherited some of the oppositions between musical materials (especially as had become codified to represent masculine and feminine characters) which were intrinsic to the latter. In all of these cases, the approach of the writer or listener amounts to something different from simply reiterating the composer’s intentions and wishes, or at least applying a different set of valorising standards to them. When applied with sufficient care for proper and balanced investigation of factual evidence (with proper referencing), rigour and transparency of argument, and elegance of presentation, not to mention some commitment to producing an argument which does more than simply reiterate that of numerous previous writers, this constitutes one variety of critical musicology. Not all or even most such work need arrive at negative conclusions, and some might affirm existing perceptions, but it does so as a result of serious consideration of alternative possibilities, rather than simply declaring them off-limits from the outset. [….] But the situation is more contested in the field of contemporary classical music. This is itself a field in which many practitioners feel themselves to be marginalised, with very little music of an atonal nature having won any degree of widespread public acceptance (even to the extent of that of composers such as Stravinsky, Britten or Shostakovich). Yet there are musicological critiques of some of this body of work emerging from people other than conservative classical music listeners. A body of work by various scholars associated with the ‘new musicology’ has contested the claims for primacy of various avant-garde music, drawing attention to what is argued to be its elitism, individualism (maintaining a nineteenth-century focus upon the ‘great composer’), abstraction and consequent social disengagement, white male middle-class bias, and artificial institutionalisation (including institutionalisation in higher education) despite its being a small minority interest. This latter point is extremely charged considering that some such musicologists inhabit university departments which they will share with some of the practitioners said to benefit from such institutional privilege.

I would welcome any comments and reflections on the thoughts by the three authors here. Is this situation inevitable? Are there any things which can be done to combat it (for example, lesser tolerance within scholarly communities towards hagiographic or deferential so-called scholarship)? Is this situation likely to be exacerbated by a scholarly environment, like that in the UK, which lends primacy to that work which has an ‘impact’ outside of an academic environment, and does achieving such impact require playing along with the politics of (and fragile egos within) a professional new music world in which critical scholarly perspective is far from being a top priority? Is the only route to one’s work gaining a wider audience and impact by serving a system of institutionalised prestige, or might impact be achievable in other environments as well? How can those involved in both scholarship and practitioners reconcile their two worlds, if indeed they can?

Musicology is not Musical PR

A good many non-musicians look bewildered when I tell them I am a musicologist as well as a performer, wondering what on earth a ‘musicologist’ is. I usually answer by saying something like ‘I am also engaged in critical historical study of music and music-making’, aware that this is far from being an exhaustive definition of the range of activity encompassed by musicology. Some musicologists are engaged primarily in highly technical analysis, others do fieldwork, some spend long periods in detailed study of old manuscripts, others investigate non-Western musical cultures, philosophies of and strategies for musical education, the psychology of music, and so on; my own work concentrates on document-based historical study, some analysis, sketch study, lots of historical contextualisation, ideology critique, performance practice, and in general a wide range of music and music-making from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing not least upon the institutions of music (including educational institutions) as well as musicians.

But, whilst many people would understand the difference between the critical study of literature such as one might undertake in an English degree, and a course in Creative Writing, designed to help students develop their skills for becoming a writer, the equivalent distinction is insufficiently understood and appreciated for music. This can be a major issue with prospective students and their parents, who imagine that a music degree is essentially a vocational qualification in order to become a professional musician. Unfortunately only a small minority of those who go through the advanced professional training provided by conservatoires succeed towards this end; the chances for those who go to university are correspondingly less.

Much can be said about the wider benefits of a music degree, the range of transferable skills it can entail, which not only prepares students well for many fields of life in which they might work, but also opens up an enriching outlook on culture and society in general. But this relates to a much wider conception of the study of the subject than would be involved in a more narrowly vocational degree, and in particular to the role of musicology.

Many musical practitioners (performers and composers) are sceptical or even downright hostile to musicology as a discipline with a degree of autonomy, seeing it as of secondary importance compared to the acts of making or producing music. Certainly as a formalised academic subject, dating from the mid-nineteenth century in the German-speaking world, musicology is very young compared to practical musical activity, though wider thinking and writing about music can be dated back a lot further. As long as human beings communicate with one another about music, then some verbal discourses are established; musicology attempts to find ways to develop these discourses into something employing more rigorous and self-critical methods for arriving at conclusions.

Not all of those who listen to or take an interest in music are necessarily involved in producing it, any more than all readers are professional writers, or viewers of art are themselves artists (I personally have interests in a wide range of visual art, but my abilities to produce anything of the type are practically zero). And the priorities of those interested in music might be quite different to those who have a professional stake in certain outcomes. In this context the intermediary role of the critic can be important – bridging the intentions and desires of the producers with the wishes and requirements of the consumers, whether reviewing concerts or restaurants. In the case of reviews of atonal contemporary music, this relationship can become fraught, depending upon the target readership; a critic writing mostly for an audience already likely to be broadly sympathetic (such as the readership of a specialist new music journal) has a different task from one writing for an audience whose sympathy might be highly selective, or may even be actively hostile to such music, and are reading this critic for advice on what they might listen to. This latter type of critic would in some sense be failing their readers if they simply reiterated composers’ own perception of their work with no consideration as to how it might be perceived by someone who does not necessarily share all of those composers’ assumptions and priorities.

When considering historical composers, there are many obvious ways in which listeners may also approach the music in question in ways very different from those of the composers (or others from the time). One does not have to be a strict Lutheran to appreciate Bach, nor necessarily accept some of the theological motivations proffered for some of the musical decisions. An atheist would believe these were a delusion or at least a fiction, and might consider them as the expression of some wider human issues. A similar situation can apply to the tropes of heroism which inform some of Beethoven’s mid-period work (and a good deal of subsequent reception), or more ominously the anti-semitic views expressed by Wagner in his 1850 article ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’; much work has been done considering the question of the extent to which these views, and other common anti-semitic views of the time, might have informed some of the characterisations in his music-dramas, and been understood as such by audiences of the time. If one concludes that this might indeed have been the case, this does not require automatic rejection of the work, but can facilitate an engagement with the music-dramas not simply as art works existing outside of time and place, but ones which reflect a particular set of ideologies of the time, held by the composer, which a reasonable person would today reject without necessarily rejecting all cultural work which sprang up in a context where they were indeed acceptable. Similar positions are possible with respect to representations of women, of characters from outside of the Western world, in musical works involving theatre or text; on a deeper level it is also possible to consider the ways in which abstract instrumental music might itself have grown out of texted/stage work and inherited some of the oppositions between musical materials (especially as had become codified to represent masculine and feminine characters) which were intrinsic to the latter.

In all of these cases, the approach of the writer or listener amounts to something different from simply reiterating the composer’s intentions and wishes, or at least applying a different set of valorising standards to them. When applied with sufficient care for proper and balanced investigation of factual evidence (with proper referencing), rigour and transparency of argument, and elegance of presentation, not to mention some commitment to producing an argument which does more than simply reiterate that of numerous previous writers, this constitutes one variety of critical musicology. Not all or even most such work need arrive at negative conclusions, and some might affirm existing perceptions, but it does so as a result of serious consideration of alternative possibilities, rather than simply declaring them off-limits from the outset.

To some extent, I believe the value of this type of work is more widely accepted than it would have been several decades ago. The situation might be different with other forms of critical investigation, such as examination of the cult of artistic genius, the privileging of particular forms of music (orchestral, chamber) over others (opera, some solo music) on grounds of apparent ‘depth’ and ‘substance’, or for that matter the devaluation of some popular music or musical forms rooted in practices from minority groups as compared to a Western art music tradition, taking on board the associated assumptions and ideologies upon which such positions are founded. All of this involves countenancing the notion that music, music-making and musical reception may not be ideologically neutral fields belong to the realms of ‘pure art’, but might themselves reflect and reflect back upon wider social perceptions.

But the situation is more contested in the field of contemporary classical music. This is itself a field in which many practitioners feel themselves to be marginalised, with very little music of an atonal nature having won any degree of widespread public acceptance (even to the extent of that of composers such as Stravinsky, Britten or Shostakovich). Yet there are musicological critiques of some of this body of work emerging from people other than conservative classical music listeners. A body of work by various scholars associated with the ‘new musicology’ has contested the claims for primacy of various avant-garde music, drawing attention to what is argued to be its elitism, individualism (maintaining a nineteenth-century focus upon the ‘great composer’), abstraction and consequent social disengagement, white male middle-class bias, and artificial institutionalisation (including institutionalisation in higher education) despite its being a small minority interest. This latter point is extremely charged considering that some such musicologists inhabit university departments which they will share with some of the practitioners said to benefit from such institutional privilege.

As both a practitioner (as an active performer) and a musicologist, I was naturally somewhat thrown when first spending serious time with this body of work in the early 2000s. At first I was hostile, as it seemed simply another nail in the coffin of the type of avant-garde music I felt bound to defend. I began framing an extensive critique of several of the key writers concerned (to date unfinished but in a quite advanced state of development, which I will return to at some point), after realising the extent to which much of this work had become easily absorbed and was now little questioned within academia, despite sometimes being based upon major assumptions which I felt never to have been properly tested. But after spending a considerable amount of time reading the work in question, I felt myself forced to conclude that it did indeed raise many issues which could not be dismissed out of hand, however much these issues might be difficult for those of us intensely involved in the field being critiqued. From this point onwards I began to take a somewhat more sceptical attitude towards various aspects of the musical world in which I was most deeply involved as a practitioner, and especially became aware of conflicting priorities as a scholar and a performer, a conflict I have never wished to artificially elide.

For those writing about contemporary composers and their work (of which I am one) this can create a very difficult situation. The work concerned is already deemed marginal, and the scholar can encounter distrust or even hostility if their own work takes a critical perspective. Such scholars value opportunities to speak and write about composers outside of the usual academic arenas, but many of these opportunities are determined by the composers in question; in several cases I know of these opportunities promptly being curtailed after the scholar in question dared to express an even mildly critical opinion about some aspect of the work of the composer in question. Perhaps as a result of this, a lot of scholarly work on new music has tended to be defensive or hagiographic – and I would include a good deal of the early writing on Boulez, Stockhausen and John Cage in this category, as well as some of the writing on Michael Finnissy by myself and others – or else simply outright hostile. Little middle ground exists between this ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ mentalities towards new music, though the situation is changing a little. The failure on the part of many actively involved with the composition and performance of new music to address the issues raised by new musicologists and others has allowed the sometimes simplistic arguments of the latter a free ride.

In my own more recent work on Finnissy (which I have been revising and editing over the last months) this has been a continual concern. Finnissy can be most articulate about his own intentions and ideas behind certain works, but it ill behoves a scholar of integrity to simply reiterate these without asking any questions first. In his piece North American Spirituals, Finnissy finds ways of combining eighteenth-century white American hymns with African-American spirituals, to make a comment about racism and racial tension. A brilliant idea (especially in the sophistication of its implementation), but to what extent does the sounding result necessarily communicate the latter to someone who has not been told what they are meant to be hearing and interpreting? And what are the wider implications of appropriating music borne of slavery into a concert hall environment generally populated by white middle class people? For reasons too detailed to explicate here, the view which I ultimately concluded was mostly affirmative of some of Finnissy’s positions, but not without attempting to consider how they might be interpreted quite differently.

The ‘intentional fallacy’ (the fallacy of granting primacy to the intentions of an author) has been widely recognised as such in literature ever since the publication of W.K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks’ 1946 essay of the same name. But in much writing about new music, the composer’s intention remains almost sacrosanct, and some writing is judged better or worse by the extent to which it concurs with this. This is a very poor state of affairs compared to that appertaining to literature. The composer is an individual existing in a particular time and place, having inherited (and of course themselves mediated) a range of beliefs and ideologies, who is inevitably a flawed individual with their own set of interests, prejudices, perhaps petty jealousies, and so on, not the be-all and end-all of meaning in the way that is implied through a deferential attitude towards ‘great men’ (and the odd ‘great woman’).

One can read any number of pieces of writing which will present the finest detail of compositional technique involved in creating a piece – in a duly ‘respectful’ manner – but when it comes to dealing with the sounding result, restrict themselves to a few choice adjectives of praise, saying little about what relationship exists between the means and the ends, let alone about why (or if) the final result might be capable of generating any type of meaningful response amongst listeners. This may not be entirely unwilled: to address the latter issue would involve asking difficult questions relating to the fact that much new music has never succeeded in gaining more than a very small audience relative to the totality of the listening population, and many of them have professional connections to the work concerned. That some artistic work is a small minority interest need not necessarily be cause for censure or dismissal, but to pretend that this is not the case, or continue with the far-from-proved assumption that simply a greater amount of promotion and publicity will generate these so-far elusive audiences, is simply naïve.

At a round table discussion at a conference a few years ago on the symphony orchestra as cultural phenomenon, one musicologist opined that whilst it was all very well for such musicologists to look critically at these types of institutions, at a time when funding is in question this was the wrong thing to do, and we should all be putting our weight behind supporting them. But this would be a prime example of substituting propaganda for scholarship. In other contexts, musicologists may want to lend their names to campaigns to preserve state funding of symphony orchestras, but to censor critical scholarship for this reason is a betrayal of every principle upon which rational investigation is based.

There are many ways in which legitimate criticisms can be made of a whole range of musicological work (some of which I intend to consider in some later posts on here); I personally would identify excessive use of jargon, sometimes to mask a paucity of any more incisive argument, and simply the production of work which seems intended primarily to satisfy a few other like-minded academics in a particular sub-field, with no real interest in whether it might have any wider impact. But the alternative to this is not simply for musicologists to line up to write what practising musicians want them to, and sacrifice any independent perspective in the process.

Musicology should be properly valued as an independent discipline which enhances understanding of music, the role of music in different societies and cultures, approaches to performance, modes of listening, and much else. These ends are not served by its inhabiting a subservient position relative to practical music-making and producing material more akin to that one might expect from composers’ publishers or musicians’ agents. And the study of music can be an enhancing experience for a great many people, regardless of whether they go on to practise it professionally.