New article in the Weekend Australian Review on issues relating to #notationgate and deskilling

A new cover article in The Weekend Australian Review, Rosemary Neill, ‘Notes on a Scandal: The raging debate over our next generation of composers and musicians: should they be able to read a score?’, Weekend Australian Review, 29-30 August 2020, brings to a further readership many of the key issues debated a few years ago as part of #notationgate and also of deskilling (see here and here). This is behind a paywall, but can currently be accessed here for those with a subscription.

Neill speaks at the outset to student composer Dante Clavijo, who surprises some people by saying that he still composes using pen and paper, rather than relying entirely upon digital audio workstations. Clavijo argues that songwriters and composers ‘absolutely benefit from knowing notation; it’s jut a logical way to organise musical thought.’ But this then leads to the question of whether even those studying music at tertiary level need to learn notation. On this, Neill quotes my collaborator Peter Tregear:

Yet Peter Tregear, a former head of the ANU’s school of music, points out that these days, students can graduate with music degrees without being able to read music, particularly if they are studying popular music and music technology subjects or degrees, and he is scathing about this trend.

“I find it concerning,” says Tregear, who obtained a PhD in musicology from Cambridge University and has worked at Cambridge, Melbourne and Monash universities. “It’s a misunderstanding of what universities are there to do. We’re meant to be expanding minds and opening horizons. … If you no longer teach musical notation, you effectively wipe out not just a good deal of recent Australian music history, but a large swathe of music history full-stop.”

Tregear presided over the ANU’s music school from 2012 to 2015 and waged a battle to keep several notation-centred subjects in the music degree. He lost.

He attributes the decoupling of music education and traditional notation to the march of new technologies and – more controversially – to a push to “decolonise” the music curriculum, because the classical canon was largely created by “dead white men”.

The outspoken academic, who has also won a Green Room Award for conducting, tells Review: “There has been, I think, a false or at least a very dubious conflation of arguments around the fact that western music notation is western music notation, and the idea that we shouldn’t favour it for that reason.

“To borrow an Orwellian phrase, ignorance is now a strength – it is considered that we’re actually better off not to teach this, which I find an extraordinary view for any higher education institution to take.”

In contrast, most European countries still comprehensively studied their own music histories. Still, even in Europe, there was a push at some conservatoriums and universities to “decolonise” the curriculum.

“There is a move away from musical notation as being central to a music education as a kind of excuplation for western historical wrongs,” he says.

Tregear argues that if a music student is incapable of engaging with music that was “increasingly written down” over the course of 1000 years, “a whole wealth of the global musical past is effectively closed to you”.

Tregear is opposed by composer and University of Melbourne professor Barry Conyngham who claims that whether or not his institution’s students ‘can read sheet music or not’, they are ‘very musically capable of conveying musical performances and thoughts.’ But composer Matthew Hindson, of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, notes that all students there must study music theory and notation.

Other examples are cited such as Paul McCartney and the Beatles, but Clavijo, like others before him, points out the important contributions of others such as George Martin, who certainly did have a more traditional and formal musical training. Others make claims that any objections to the removal of traditional skills are little more than resistance to ‘decolonisation’.

This article obviously comes from an Australian context, from a country in which (as with the US and even to some extent the UK), art music traditions have a much less central cultural role than in much of continental Europe, and with fewer living musical traditions developed over centuries or millennia as in various Asian and African countries. But it points to a wider trend by which a mixture of over-elevated claims for certain technology, allied to populist and commercialist attitudes (invariably favouring Western popular musics – the study of non-Western musical traditions are faring no better in this environment, for all the rhetoric of decolonisation) are said to obviate any requirement for more rigorous training.

My online timelines fill up with videos and websites promising to teach people how to compose in a few weeks without requiring any learning of harmony, use of instruments, and so on. Furthermore, in an interview from two years ago, film composer Hans Zimmer, recently renowned for his slowed-down version of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ to accompany the arrival of pleasure boats to rescue British soldiers in Dunkirk, the film which was accurately described as fuelling Brexit fantasies, boasts of having ‘no technique’ and ‘no formal education’, but instead ‘the only thing I know how to write about is something that’s inside of me.’ This sort of argument is not new, and was encountered in the nineteenth-century amongst a range of Russian composers opposed to the professionalisation of music-making and establishment of conservatoires for this purpose. Appealing to some sense of inner authenticity and the notion that somehow anyone can be a composer so long as they have something ‘inside of them’, has a long and dishonourable history, as was debated extensively in the responses to Stella Duffy posted on this blog in 2017. It speaks to a wider culture of anti-intellectualism and deskilling, in which the only measure of art is commercial and popular success.

I continue to believe that it would be a great loss if those who go on to teach music in primary and secondary cannot read music and thus will be unable to impart it to pupils, or if composition becomes merely about copying and pasting others’ work. This is not to deny the importance throughout musical history of musical borrowing, an issue about which there are a range of sophisticated theoretical models (of which I undertake a critical survey in order to arrive at models for analysing the work of Michael Finnissy, in my book chapter, ‘Negotiating borrowing, genre and mediation in the piano music of Finnissy: strategies and aesthetics’). A good deal of very superficial writing on postmodernism, intertextuality and so on, is founded essentially a dichotomy between two straw men – an insistence upon absolute originality or total plagiarism, when in reality almost all music of any quality inhabits differing positions on a spectrum. That Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky or any number of others drew upon existing musical forms, genres, styles, sometimes explicitly borrowed musical materials (for example Liszt’s huge range of ‘transcriptions’ for piano, or Brahms’s many pieces alluding to Renaissance or early Baroque choral music) has never seriously been in doubt to anyone familiar with their work. Such examples as Stravinsky’s transformation of baroque musical materials into an angular, askew, sometimes dissonant, and alienated musical experience, Finnissy’s transformations of small groups of pitches and rhythms from Sardinian folk song into wild, rampaging musical canvasses, Ives’s hallucinatory and terrifying visions incorporating the residues upon consciousness of mangled hymns, allusions to brass bands, Beethoven and more, Berio’s carefully-judged fragmentations and superimpositions of a wide range of music from nineteenth- and twentieth-century orchestral and other repertoire on top of parallel threads provided by the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony and a text from Beckett’s The Unnamable, to create an unsettling tapestry of commentary and critique, or for that matter Chopin’s use of known dance and other genres (waltz, polonaise, mazurka, etc.) allied to a Bellinian sense of vocal line and an ultra-refined contrapuntal sensibility, are all a world away from music which simply lifts others’ work or hackneyed clichés for ready-made, tried and tested, effects and moods. What distinguishes the above (and many others, including many in non-‘classical’ fields of composition) is a highly developed and refined level of musicianship, including detailed musical understanding of the properties of the sources upon which they draw. These are not achieved easily, and empty claims that anyone can be a composer comparable with the above, without having to go through the training, are no more convincing than equivalent claims about becoming a surgeon.

New contributions to #notationgate from Jon Henschen and Andrew Mellor

Readers of this blog will recall #notationgate in Spring of 2017, a public debate about the role of Western (and other) musical notations in education and music-making in general, provoked by a polemical article by Charlotte C. Gill, in which she claimed that musical notation was ‘a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education’. This led to a major letter to The Guardian in response, which I and several others co-ordinated, with signatories from a range of leading musicians and musicologists (see here for the full list, and a range of links to other responses). I also wrote a follow-up article for The Conversation (‘The insidious class divide in music teaching’, 17 May 2017). It should be registered, though, that there was another group of mainly musicologists and some music educationalists who drafted another letter in response to ours, but which was never published, arguing that the first response was inflammatory, and insistence on musical notation discriminated against some with various learning and other difficulties. This was however never published.

In August of this year, Jon Henschen published an article for Intellectual Takeout (‘The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)’, 16 August 2018), with statistics showing just 11% of people (presumably in the US) could read music well, and linked this to wider declines in the quality of a good deal of popular music, citing a study (Joan Serra, Álvaro Corral, Marián Boguñá, Martín Haro and Josep Ll. Arcos, ‘Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music’, Scientific Reports 2, article 521 (2012)) which demonstrated increasing homogeneity of content in terms of pitch, timbre and other parameters. Henschen also alluded to the domination of songwriting by Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, suggesting that a lack of wider notational skills provided the opportunity for just a few individuals to dominate, with all that implies in terms of homogeneity.

Anyhow, Andrew Mellor has published another short piece for Classical Music magazine (‘Academics who dismiss musical literacy have confused recreation with study’, 10 October 2018), engaging more deeply with the major academic divides on the subject which did flare up a little during the original #notationgate and continued in responses to Henschen’s article. I have a lot of sympathy with his criticisms of the substitution of music sociology for the study of music (which is not to say that music sociology is not also an important discipline), and the dire consequences of reducing notational requirements in education. Here is a section from the article:

…one university academic went for the jugular: stave notation is relevant only to ‘the minority music of the elites’, he said, claiming notated music accounts for just ‘3.5% of all concerts and recordings’. Some Facebookers retorted: isn’t ‘the minority music of the elites’ a little incendiary and over-simplified? The academic responded calmly: studies repeatedly tell us that mostly wealthy people enjoy classical music and opera. […]The academic clarified his position: sure, students at university can learn western notation if they want to, but they might find it more useful to learn how to use music production software.

[…] The real reason some universities no longer require music students to be able to read music – and yes, you did read that correctly – is that it widens their potential market. It means lecturers don’t have to consider how best to maintain musical literacy skills in their students, nor take the time and effort required to test them. In some cases, it tells of a faction who wish to see ‘the minority music of the elites’ ousted from university music departments altogether.

Anyone who believes this intellectual debasement will flood higher education with new perspectives and alternative narratives is dreaming. Ditching notation is not about opening music education up, but about closing huge swathes of it off. There is hardly a western musical form in existence that cannot be analysed and contextualised using notation. More importantly, there are questions surrounding instrumental competence, not least for those graduates who proceed to teach practical music-making in schools.

Marketplace education has a lot to answer for, not least the redefinition of what it means to study a subject rigorously. Some universities will go to any length to pander to the whims and parameters of their student ‘customers’. We learned recently that a British university is to launch a joint degree in journalism and PR. If that doesn’t feel like a marketing department defining the content of a degree course, I don’t know what does.

The results of all this will be further inequality and division. The classical music scene in this country is arguably thriving like never before, but if musical notation becomes the preserve of private schools and Oxbridge, five centuries of music really will become the plaything of the minority. What’s worrying is that there are plenty who are willing that to happen, knowing it will lead to all-out extinction. And that’s when Jon Henschen’s nightmarish vision will come to fruition.

Gilmore Girls, Notationgate, and Harvardgate

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

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