The departure from academia of a brilliant scholar unafraid to critique the relationship of culture to capital

No photo description available.
Paul and I at the Hartlepool Headland, Xmas 2019. Also accompanied by Emily Tan and Lindsay Edkins, not in the picture!

For several months, various friends have known about the upcoming departure of Professor J.P.E. Harper-Scott from academia, at the age of 43, to take up a job in the Civil Service. To friends he is Paul, and I will refer to him as that from this point, as I am mourning the loss to the profession not only of a brilliant scholar, but also a close personal friend.

Paul published a ‘farewell blog post’, which has been widely shared on social media. In this, without engaging in any targeted critiques of individual scholars or groups, he identified the heart of the problem with which he no longer wanted to be continuously embroiled: an approach to scholarship which preaches dogma and allows for no dissent from orthodoxies, in drastic opposition to the spirit of critical thought which was what drew him to academia in the first place. He exemplified this with a stark statement (an imaginary one, but definitely of a type with which many will be familiar) about how, on account of the interactions between nineteenth-century music and imperial societies, ‘The classical music canon must be decolonised’ (my emphasis). He followed this with a considerably more nuanced view compared to this dogmatic utterance. Then he noted the necessary consequence which would likely be drawn of the dogmatic statement: that music departments stop teaching Beethoven and Wagner, rather than the alternative he suggests by which such music can be used as a means of understanding more about the social contexts from which they emerged. Then he went on to describe his own sense of joy and liberation upon discovering a lot of such music, coming from a background in which it played almost no part. There was a real sense of sadness in the portrayal of a situation in many quarters in which anyone who dissents from this type of ideology is subject to personalised attacks, shaming, no-platforming, and attempts to have them removed from their posts, and how the dogmatic approach mirrors that found in media, politics and business. This was not a world in which he any longer wished to operate.

At first, Paul’s blog post provoked a lot of expressions of sadness and regret, combined with various individuals imploring musicology to look at itself and how it has got to this state. I certainly recognise quite a bit of what he diagnoses, though some of this is more prominent in the US than the UK, and in the UK it is found in certain quarters much more than others. There is a pronounced divide within the UK sector between the ‘post-92’ institutions (former polytechnics before 1992) which in large measure (with a few exceptions) focus on more vocational teaching of Music Technology, Music Business, Musical Theatre, Popular Music Performance, and so on, and the Russell Group (the elite group of research-intensive institutions) in which there is a greater emphasis on a humanistic approach to the study of a wide historical range of music, ethnomusicology, critical academic study of music and its contexts, analysis, performance practice, and so on. Various institutions fall in neither of these groups, and often combine aspects of both approaches. Many of the Russell Group and mid-ranking institutions have taken on aspects of popular music (notoriously Oxford University’s recent introduction of a part-core module in Global Hip-Hop), music business, in some cases music technology, and so on, integrating these into wider curricula, but there has been less traffic in the other direction. Few outside of conservatoires would be able to complete their studies without at least facing some critical questions about the reasons for a canonical repertoire and especially the role of popular music and non-Western traditions relative to this, but many studying popular music can limit their focus exclusively to such music, usually overwhelmingly from the English-speaking world and from a relatively limited historical period, To engage with older historical popular traditions, or those around the world less deeply indebted to the Anglo-American model, is far more rare. Even within part of the sector, there are more than a few ethnomusicologists who heap down criticism on most things related to Western art musics, its traditions, and associated scholarship, often in deeply impugning, accusatory and denunciatory ways (there are some examples of this in this article, which can be found together with the companion piece ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography’ in this book) , but react with horror at even the slightest critique towards their own field. And, as for example expressed in relatively mild form in this exchange following a quite denunciatory radio talk by one professor on ‘Dead White Composers’, there are plenty in academia who will happily dismiss centuries of heterogenous traditions with a few tawdry adjectives (or, in many cases, claiming it to do little more than embody feudal, imperial, racist, misogynistic values – all true in some ways, and of other musics, but far from a nuanced picture) whilst making extravagantly liberatory or emancipatory claims for their own favoured popular musics.

But some of the responses on social media to Paul’s resignation post, including some from academics, exemplified a lot of what he was diagnosing. While a few respectfully questioned some of the arguments made and whether he represented the reality appropriately, others were extremely aggressive, personalised, espousing contempt bordering on hatred, righteous, while others flagrantly misrepresented what Paul’s article actually said, or attempted to undermine his words on ad hominem grounds. Others even claimed that the article caused ‘hurt’, and then felt obliged to denounce it and him as a result. There were no personalised attacks on anyone or any groups in the article, but this was not true of the responses, some of which seemed calculated to cause maximum hurt. This was the unedifying spectacle of a pile-on, and it was deeply disappointing to see some scholars, perhaps the types Paul had in mind when he spoke of those claimed to be ‘generally quite well-meaning’ but not ‘brave’, feel pressure to join in the mobbing.

Paul was clearly a brilliant scholar from the outset. His early work on Elgar (in Edward Elgar: Modernist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), drawing upon his PhD; Elgar: An Extraordinary Life (London: ABRSM, 2007); and the edited collection with Julian Rushton, Elgar Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)) made a very significant contribution to a wider body of scholarship drawing the concept of musical ‘modernism’ more broadly than hitherto and highlighting, with the aid of various analytical tools, the ways in which musical strategies, aesthetics, processes, structures and more left an indelible mark even on work not usually considered together with the most radical figures.

He became a full Professor at the relatively early age of his late 30s, and continued to be highly productive, having to his name by the time of leaving academia five sole-authored monographs, several edited volumes, and countless articles and book chapters (an unfinished book comparing neo-Riemannian analysis with Hugo Riemann’s own work will be completed by another scholar). He was also a highly respected, though far from uncritical, mentor to many junior scholars.

The most important aspect of his work, in my view, was his endless exploration of the relationship between music, musicology, and capital. In this he came from a position on the radical left, drawing upon Marxist models of capital, and was very critical of what he saw as much more casual work in which ‘capitalism’ is essentially viewed as synonymous with any system in which goods are bought and sold. Paul, by contrast, examined what he perceived as the ideological complicity of various strands of thinking fashioned as progressive, democratic, anti-elitist, etc., with the interests of capital. His position was made clear in the Preface to The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012):

But as well as critiquing scholarship on modernism in particular, the book constitutes a broader ideological critique of all manifestations of what could variously be termed postmodern, pluralist, or as Badiou would say democratic materialist musicology. I will therefore make a Leftist case for the possibility of an emancipatory politics that is diametrically opposed to the relativist–cultural sweep of (the bulk of: emphatically not all of) modern ethnomusicology, empirical musicology, musicology of pop music, and all other crypto-capitalist work on what are called musics, by showing how modernist music (on this new dialectical definition) helps to advance our most pressing present concern – to escape the horrors of the present by imagining the transformations of a coming society. (p. xiv)

The following passage indicates his type of argument at full flow:

[Richard] Taruskin’s second suggestion is that ‘cast[ing] aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity’. Let us turn this on its head and insist instead that concealing the moral consequence of obfuscated xenophobic–capitalist aesthetic preferences at the start of the twenty-first century is an obscenity. What Taruskin is doing, of course, is to deny the emancipatory potential of classical music – not because he particularly disbelieves it, I expect (he wrote a five-volume history of it, after all) – but because it pleases him argumentatively to assault other musicologists. In parallel, he wants to say that popular classical music is more valuable – which is to say (as he does) more consumable – in the world of late capitalism. But this aesthetic decision in favour of the popular over the recondite has ethical consequences that Taruskin neither admits nor – as is clear from his gruff rejection of any possible link between aesthetic choice and ethical act – would acknowledge. But capitalism has subjects, subjects who are exploited, limited, have their life’s possibilities minutely circumscribed and controlled. Declaring in favour of the popular is fine as far as it goes, but doing so while denying any possibility of a truth-statement that exceeds the definition of the merely popular (that is, ideologically normative) with the intention of tearing apart the prevailing understanding of the situation – which for us today is global neoliberal capitalism – is simultaneously to declare in favour of the dictatorship of Capital, and the impossibility of its revolutionary destruction.

More extended such arguments can be found in the longer passage from this book, a link to which I posted earlier. In general, a good deal of his strongest critiques were directed at a particular Anglo-American ideological viewpoint, now common within musicology, which can loosely be associated with postmodernism, a position of high relativism which remains oblivious to the influence of capital. For myself, while I can no longer subscribe wholly to the type of Marxist thinking with which I once had some sympathies (and especially not the neo-Maoism of Alain Badiou), and believe the relationship between popular art and capital to be somewhat more complex, I do have other sympathies with various of his arguments from a social democratic perspective, one which rejects the untethered reign of market forces and the commodity principle as a fundamental measure of the value of everything, but believes in regulation, a strong public sector (including in the realms of education and culture), progressive taxation and public spending, and also which does not necessarily view the ‘state’ always as a malign and hegemonic force, but one which can equally act as a democratic check on the power of capital and big business. In this post, I have collated some examples of musicologists who are more explicit in appealing to commercial forces and the market as a supposedly emancipatory alternative to other means of cultural production, or sometimes denying there could be any alternative to the former. This is a perfectly legitimate perspective, and one which deserves proper consideration, but there are many obvious reasons to doubt the extent to which such an ideological viewpoint should be associated with the political left.

Paul also repeatedly returned to the issue of Anglo-American xenophobia in musicology. He was not alone in this; even Nicholas Cook, coming from a very different ideological and scholarly perspective from Paul, had reason to criticise what he called ‘the xenophobic essentialism that Taruskin seems on occasion to erect into a historiographical principle’ (Nicholas Cook, ‘Alternative Realities: A Reply to Richard Taruskin’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 30, no. 2 (2006), p. 208; a reply to Richard Taruskin, ‘Review: Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207). Paul wrote about the ‘E→G→N short circuit’, which he associated especially with Taruskin, whereby Europeans (E) become conflated with Germans (G) which become conflated with Nazis (N). This is rooted within a tradition of neo-conservative thought, which sees American-style capitalist democracy, fascism, or Stalinist communism, with the latter two also seen as very similar in many ways, and European social democracy distrusted and sometimes demonised for its lack of wholehearted embrace of the US model.

Paul’s final book as an academic is The Event of Music History (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2021), some of which I am continuing to process at present, and about which I plan to write a more extended response. In this he sought to address fundamental historiographical questions and the question of what constitutes a ‘subject of music history’. He concentrated critical attention on postmodern theories of history such as those of Hayden White, F.R. Ankersmit, Keith Jenkins or Alun Munslow, as well as a range of alternative models provided within musicology, in particular some outlined by James Hepokoski (in ‘Dahlhaus’s Beethoven-Rossini Stildualismus: Lingering Legacies of the Text-Event Dichotomy’, in The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini: Historiography, Analysis, Criticism, edited Nicholas Mathew and Benjamin Walton (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 15-48). These could be delineated into four categories: (1) a critique of Western European canons and their ideological underpinnings; (2) an attempt to dilute what is perceived as an elitist, anti-democratic and German-centred canon by greater incorporation of Mediterranean opera, performer-centered composition, nationalistic works not traditionally viewed as significant, or types of popular or commercial music; (3) a more pronounced shift away from a German-centered canon towards alternative traditions coming from the opposite side of the ‘Beethoven-Rossini divide’ as articulated by Carl Dahlhaus, so that the likes of Donizetti, Verdi, Paganini or Liszt move to centre stage, while a focus on performance replaces score-based analysis, quite deeply distrusted; (4) more difficult to summarise, but employing the opposition between the ‘drastic’ and the ‘gnostic’ cited by Carolyn Abbate (in ‘Music – Drastic or Gnostic’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 3 (2204), pp. 505-36), borrowed from philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, focusing above all on musical reception, and valorising the performative/drastic in opposition to the gnostic. Paul examines these in some detail, in all cases critically, and proceeds in the book to engage with the work of Theodor Adorno to a more thorough extent than previously, leading to extended chapters returning to the central figure of Beethoven, the role of analysis in discerning the ‘truth content’ of his works, as well as questioning some reductive models of the relationship of Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ style to the Napoleonic era and so on.

I have significant differences with Paul on many issues. He is deeply invested in Lacanian psychoanalysis, about which I am more sceptical, as I am about some intellectual figures he strongly favours, such as Badiou or Slavoj Žižek. I take a somewhat different view of such issues as the ‘Beethoven-Rossini divide’, and have perhaps greater sympathies with views which believe in a certain decentring of a particular Austro-German canon (and as such, have more time for strategy 2 above, which has informed some of my own teaching), and even with those which make a rather stark valorisation between highly commercially focused music-making and that which exists with some degree of protection from the vagaries of the market. In that respect, I do not so strongly go along with every aspect of Paul’s critique of some of the arguments of Richard Taruskin, even though I also maintain some aspects of this and other critiques of this body of work. Paul is not sympathetic to the most of the field of historically-informed performance, from a position probably closer to that of Pierre Boulez than Taruskin, while I see this field as of huge importance and value. Furthermore, I believe some of Paul’s critiques themselves to be too all-encompassing in nature, though it is important to note, for example, his critique of some work of ethnomusicologist Henry Stobart was balanced by a counter-example taken from another ethnomusicologist, Martin Stokes. While heavily critical of a lot of directions in ethnomusicology, this did not amount to a blanket rejection of this sub-discipline. For myself, I think study of at least one musical tradition from outside of Europe or North America should be an core part of most music curricula, showing students very different musics, social and cultural contexts from those with which they are likely to be familiar, but have a variety of critiques of some methods and ideological positions associated with ethnomusicology.

But I recognise a lot of the tendencies outlined in Paul’s resignation post, especially the level of dogmatism, with bullying, pathologisation and demonisation as an alternative to any attempts at communication, engagement and scholarly critique with those of divergent viewpoints. This is very unbefitting of academia, and the very converse of genuine diversity (which should include ideological diversity) and a spirit of critical thinking. Paul has left behind an important body of work, and numerous other contributions to academic life – for example as an elected trustee of the Society for Music Analysis, like myself, and through his immensely generous work creating and maintaining the Golden Pages, an invaluable resource for all musicologists listing upcoming conferences, dissertation abstracts, citation guides, online resources, university music departments, and more. But he had weathered the storms for as long as he wanted to, and wished (on an entirely voluntary basis) for a career change, also in light of an unhappy situation where cuts were made to his department at Royal Holloway, which was also a key arena for very pitched battles between factions. For my part, I am simply very sad to see the departure of both a friend and a scholar for whom I have the highest respect, even where we disagree. British musicology will be all the poorer without Paul.

Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 1. Papers of Larson Powell and Eva Moreda Rodriguez

At this year’s Royal Musical Association annual conference, at the University of Manchester/Royal Northern College of Music, I was very pleased to convene a panel on ‘Rethinking Contemporary Musicologies: Disciplinary Shifts and the Risks of Deskilling’ (12 September 2019). These featured the following speakers and papers:

Larson Powell (University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA): ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Eva Moreda Rodriguez (University of Glasgow): ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’.

Darla M. Crispin (Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway): ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’

Peter Tregear (University of Melbourne, Australia): ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.

Below, I reproduce my Introduction to the panel in full, then give a detailed account of the first two papers (as some of these are drafts for chapters in the book, I prefer not to reproduce them verbatim). In the second part of this, I will do the same with the other two papers and also give some wider reflections of my own on the very well-attended and constructive event.


Ian Pace, Introduction

Twenty years ago, in 1999, Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist published the co-edited volume Rethinking Music. This followed in the wake of a series of publications now associated with the ‘New Musicology’ from the early 1990s, but the scale of this publication and its appearance from such a major publisher as Oxford University Press indicated how various tendencies had entered the musicological mainstream. Twenty years later, Peter Tregear and I are in the process of co-editing a new volume, Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, which will appear from Routledge in 2020. This brings together a range of leading scholars who all offer critical perspectives on both developments in English-speaking academia which were relatively new when Cook/Everist was published and the state of play in more long-established realms of research and teaching. Four of the contributors are here and will be giving papers, most of which relate to their chapters in the book.

I would emphasise that this book deals specifically with English-speaking academia. This is not because of any type of provinciality, let alone any assertion of centrality of Anglophone contributions to the disciplines. Rather, the editors simply feel that the issues at stake in the Anglosphere, while far from homogeneous, are somewhat distinct from those elsewhere, and as such warrant separate consideration.

Amongst the other chapters in the book – this is not an exhaustive list – are Paul Harper-Scott on musicology, the middlebrow and questions of demographics amongst academics, Christopher Wiley on popular music education and the question of specifically musical engagement, Mu-Xuan Lin on body politics and gendered orthodoxies relating to contemporary composition and the ‘New Discipline’, myself on the application of ethnomusicological approaches to the study of Western art music, then Michael Spitzer on the state of musical analysis, Alan Davison on that for music history, Nicole Grimes on neo-liberalism and the study of Western art music, and case studies relating to issues provoked by the work of Richard Taruskin, Nicholas Cook and Georgina Born, written by Frank Cox, me and Joan Arnau Pamiès respectively.

In general, the contributors can be said to share varying degrees of scepticism towards some aspects of such Anglophone musicology which can be said either to have become orthodoxies, or are sufficiently widespread as to be worthy of critical interrogation. In short, it is time to cast a critical eye on what the discipline has become. Key questions which recur in many essays have to do with the demands of interdisciplinarity, especially whether some allegedly interdisciplinary work entails more than a superficial injection of a handful of concepts or buzzwords from other disciplines (as has been argued by Giles Hooper, another contributor to the book) rather than more rigorous engagement, and the complementary issue of ‘deskilling’ of musicology.

The term ‘deskilling’ was coined by Marxist theorist Harry Braverman in his Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 1974) to characterise the lowering of skill levels as part of a process of progressive estrangement and alienation of workers, relating to the division of labour, in the process increasing their dispensability. As musicology has supposedly become more diverse, many of us argue that various core skills and knowledge, not least relating to basic musicianship, notation, familiarity with history and repertoire, and especially theory and analysis, can no longer be assumed on the part of students, graduates, and indeed many academics themselves. This reduces the possibility of broader interactions between those working in different sub-disciplinary areas, and limits the ability of many to contribute to certain types of core curriculum.

What remains, at worst, is an atomised profession permeated by disputes and struggles for territory and power, in place of genuine quests for knowledge, however utopian such ideals might be. Such a situation is exacerbated and in some ways fuelled by neo-liberal reforms to higher education, pitting students as ‘consumers’, creating increased precarity for academics, and importing aspects of market culture as well as ever-growing strata of top-down management. Whilst many of the new musicological tendencies are advocated by those laying claim to ‘progressive’ political causes, at the same time they have often proved most amenable to the strictures of the commercialised university, not least through the post-modernist eschewal of conceptions of truth and knowledge with a degree of autonomy from their social function, in a capitalist society.*

Contributors to the book consider how his situation has come about, what are some of the ideological assumptions which underlie such a predicament, how this has been manifested in certain types of work, and what might be positive alternatives.

*This point may deserve more explanation than I gave in the introduction. My argument here is essentially that concepts of truth and scholarly autonomy and integrity serve as a brake on attempts to enlist academia in the service of the production of good capitalist functionaries. As such, post-modernists who jettison such things, or the likes of William Cheng and his acolytes (see the arguments of Peter Tregear below), facilitate such a process. It is no coincidence that many of these are strong advocates for heavily commercialised forms of music-making.


Larson Powell, ‘Film-Music Studies between Disciplines’.

Professor Powell began by identifying a growth in the field of film music studies in English since the publication of Claudia Gorbman’s Unheard Melodies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), but noted the difficulty in defining the field. He cited David Neumeyer, in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies, edited Neumeyer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), on how film music studies are ‘a node between disciplines’ and how scholars ‘have begun to bypass the modes requiring highly specialized musical knowledge and jargon by moving toward sound studies’. Whilst accepting the need for broadening of established musicological methodologies in light of this specific technological context, Powell argued that when links to musicology are loosened, the result is often ‘imprecision and methodological inconsistency’. He cited James Buhler’s discernment (in ‘Ontological, Formal, and Critical Theories of Music and Sound’, in the Oxford Handbook) of three phases in film music theory: (i) the ontological, prior to World War Two; (ii) the methodological, linked to institutionalisation of the discipline, and incorporating structuralism, semiotics and psychoanalysis; and (iii) the ‘field theory’, a looser conglomerate of approaches. Buhler notes that when the term ‘critical theory’ is employed in film music studies, it no longer refers to the hybrid of Marxism and psychoanalysis which characterised the work of the Frankfurt School, but also areas such as poststructuralism, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonialism and race studies, narrative and cultural studies, and so on, without recognising the incompatibility of some of these. Furthermore, the forms of interpretation employed are usually limited to ‘semantic content or associations’, which are notoriously ambiguous.

Powell gave quite a severe critique of Anahid Kassabian’s book Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2000) (for another critique of a different piece of writing by Kassabian, see my contribution here), not least on account of her (mis-)characterisations of the work of Adorno, which he called ‘schoolbook examples of cultural studies misconceptions’. Kassabian claims that Adorno, Stravinsky and Irwin Bazelon ‘all seem to suggest that music is outside of social relations, pure in some fundamental, ontological way’, which Powell found absurd in light of Adorno’s work such as his Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York: Seabury Press, 1976; translated by E.B. Ashton from Einleitung in der Musiksoziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1962)). Furthermore, he noted that Kassabian’s ideas of ‘meaning’ were unconstrained by any technical musical engagement, nor by any sociological theory, and amounted to little more than speculation, held up in opposition to a straw-man notion of ‘absolute music’.

Kassabian claims that the relationship between musics and social orders is something that Western society has attempted to repress since the Enlightenment, and in a similar manner, ‘film music constitutes society while being constituted by it’. Powell characterised this as typical of ‘the amateur sociology of cultural studies’ which ‘sees society as an undifferentiated totality’, and uses the simple concept of ‘repression’ to encompass all of the various ‘subsystems of art, economics, morality, politics and law, a central component of theories of modernity’ (I would add that in Marxist terms these constitute key elements of the superstructure). She assumes that her readers share her own prejudices and assumptions, such as that high culture is repressive by its nature, while popular music is an emancipatory force; Powell then demonstrated how some of her claims of ‘our’ identifications with certain music amount to little more than brand recognition, and so ‘scholarship’ becomes little more than registering one’s favourite top 40 tune.

Powell then looked at Emilio Audissino’s Film/Music Analysis: A Film Studies Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), which he finds considerably more edifying than the work of Kassabian, but not without methodological problems. Audissino takes more of a neo-formalist approach (this is a school of film studies heavily indebted to the work of Noël Burch, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson from the early 1980s onwards), and is sceptical towards ‘culturalist analysis’ without ‘some basic grasp and knowledge of the musical art’, though is vague on what the latter might amount to. Audissino rejects a ‘separatist’ view of the visual and aural aspects of a film, presenting as an alternative a view of a film as ‘as an integrated system of elements (say, a soup)’, whereby an analysis should ‘break down the single substance to its single ingredients (tomatoes, salt, oil, etc.)’ Powell was quite amazed by the idea that an integrated system of music and image (like a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) might be seen as a ‘soup’, and in contrast presented the view from Ludwig von Bertalanaffy’s General System Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968):

A system can be defined as a set of elements standing in interrelations.  Interrelation means that elements, p, stand in relations, R, so that the behavior of an element p in R is different from its behavior in another relation, R’.

In a film, a piece of music ‘behaves’ differently to how it would in another film, or a concert hall, argued Powell, but the concept of the system means that its identity is not wholly dissolved in the process, as the metaphor of the soup might imply.

Audissino cites an analysis by Frank Lehman of John Williams’ score to Raiders of the Lost Ark in which a cadence is coordinated with the discovery of the Ark, and is ‘exactly in synch with the sun rays’. But Powell subtly probed the use of the concept of ‘function’ for music in such a context, whereby it implies a teleological view by which a coupling of music and image is required to be ‘effective’ or ‘work’. In contrast to this, Powell suggested that function ought to be a comparison rather than a teleology, and pertinently observed that ‘If one only grasps film music in relation to the image, one cannot imagine what other kinds of music could have been used’. Williams’ music is able to be visually functional by ‘straining the boundaries of tonal functionality’, which Powell compared to the Rückung or harmonic shift identified by Adorno in Schubert or late Beethoven (as discussed in Michael Spitzer, Music as Philosophy: Beethoven’s Late Style (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006)).

To Powell, Audissino employs a concept of ‘effectiveness’ which is wholly in the ear of the listener, and as such renders a particular acculturated response as something absolute, as does Kassabian when talking about responses to pop music heard on a car radio (which she thinks more ‘natural’ than those experienced in a concert hall). But Powell alluded to a standard practice in film studies of listening to a sequence with the sound turned off and then on, which demonstrates its distinctive role and codes. He maintained that perceived effect (or German Wirkung), while certainly an important consideration, should not be the only one, and called for greater understanding of the craft of writing film scores.

For an alternative approach to the audio-visual relation, Powell looked to semiotics, claiming that this had had relatively little impact upon cultural studies, and differentiating the ‘encoding/decoding’ model bequeathed by Stuart Hall, which Powell felt had more to do with communications theory (I am personally a little unsure about this claim about cultural studies and semiotics in light of the influence of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957; translated Annette Lavers as Mythologies (London, Paladin, 1972)) on the former field, though this could be considered some of Barthes’ loosest and most journalistic work, in comparison to his almost exaggeratedly analytical approach to semiotics elsewhere). Drawing upon Christian Metz’s observation (in The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)) that film language ‘possesses a grammar, up to a point, but no vocabulary’, Powell noted how neither Kassabian nor Audissino ‘clearly define the relation of sound to image‘, instead simply ‘leaping straight from music to larger narrative or cultural signification’. He related this problem back to Gorbman and her argument that ‘musical codes’ are always overridden by ‘cultural’ or ‘cinematic’ codes.

Musical semiotics, however, is a rich and pluralist tradition, often at best combined with rhetoric, hermeneutics or pragmatics, as detailed in Michael Spitzer’s Metaphor and Musical Thought (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis (London: Dent, 1987). Powell drew various theses from this:

(i) it is very hard to pin down a ‘natural’ or unitary correlation between musical signifier and signified, as ‘Music does not simply ‘transmit’ a signal from sender to receiver’. To assume otherwise reflects the biases of communications studies, in departments of which film scholars are often employed.
(ii) this situation comes about because musical signification cannot exist without associated competencies, as argued by music semiotician Eero Tarasti in Signs of Music (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002), and also by Kofi Agawu in the related field of topic theory (Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classical Music (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1991).
(iii) musical signs cannot be analysed in isolation, as the minimal units of meanings are not simply sounds heard in isolation, but utterances. Scott Murphy (in ‘Transformational Theory and the Analysis of Film Music’, in the Oxford Handbook) has shown this for popular film music scores, using neo-Riemannian theory.
(iv) access to what Jean-Jacques Nattiez (in Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, translated Carolyn Abbate (Princeton, NJ and London: Princeton University Press, 1990)) calls the ‘musical object’ is not provided by a naïve approach to listening, where the listener hears only what they want to hear. Kassabian and Audissino, in a similar fashion, hear only their own cultural and academic conventions.

Powell advocated recent dissertations by Juan Chattah (‘Semiotics, Pragmatics, and Metaphor in Film Music Analysis’ (Florida State University, 2006)) and Alex Newton (‘Semiotic of Music, Semiotics of Sound, and Film: Toward a Theory of Acousticons’ (University of Texas, 2015)). Newton’s ‘acousticon’ is a new semiotic audiovisual unit, investigated through a combination of musical and visual analysis, while he makes a link to the topic theories of Leonard Ratner, Agawu, and especially Robert Hatten and suggests that film music theory could learn from art-historical iconography and iconology. Powell argued that one might also draw further on Spitzer’s work on musical metaphor and associated scepticism about certain uses of semiotics (when they become ‘a kind of glorified motive-spotting’, like a similar criticism from Nicholas Cook), so as ‘not merely to produce another castle-in-the-sky of system-building that could risk its own problems’.


Eva Moreda Rodriguez, ‘Are We all Transnational Now? Global Approaches and Insularity in Music History’

Dr Moreda Rodriguez began by noting how for over 200 years many have been fascinated by the idea of a global history of music, and how in contemporary times this coincided with moves towards internationalisation in many Anglo-Saxon universities who wish to recruit more international students and also, ‘more recently, to develop broader, more diverse, “decolonized” curriculums’. In this context, she proceeded with a critical examination of three attempts at writing such a history: Mark Hijleh, Towards a Global Music History: Intercultural Convergence, Fusion, and Transformation in the Human Musical History (New York: Routledge, 2019); Philip V. Bohlman (ed.), The Cambridge History of World Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and the project ‘Towards a Global Music History’ led by Reinhard Strohm (Oxford University) under the auspices of the Balzan Prize for Musicology.

Moreda Rodriguez also alluded to her own experiences as an ‘international’ academic working at a British university, whose work focuses on her own country of origin, Spain, which is considered somewhat marginal within Western art music. This, she said, had shaped her perceptions of the ‘global’, not least when having to put together grant applications justifying the relevance of her research beyond the community of musicologists working on music in the same time and place. As such, she felt it necessary at least implicitly to engage with the questions underlying these ‘global music history’ projects. Moreda Rodriguez’s principal projects to date have related to music under the Franco regime, which led her towards history and political science, and the national and international nature of fascism; and on the early history of recording technologies, about which she noted that there are many localised non-Anglophone studies, but the more ‘global’ narrative is dominated by US or other English-language sources and issues without acknowledging this.

Hijleh’s book justifies the sole-author narrative by framing itself as a textbook as would be used in a US context, where students take a greater range of foundational, comprehensive courses than in British universities. He also claims that it should be viewed as a gateway for the development of musicianship, in light of which Moreda Rodriguez argued that it should be viewed as a companion to Hijleh’s earlier Towards a Global Music Theory: Practical Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Music across Human Cultures (London: Routledge, 2016). She also noted the extent of Hijelh’s interest in music theory, manifested in investigations of the relative role of melody and harmony in different times and places, or issues of tuning and temperament, as well as the development of ‘global regions’ of influence and prominence at various periods in history. While these two axes suggested very promising results, Moreda Rodriguez felt the book to be let down by omissions and overgeneralizations. For example, he treats the Americas as a whole in the period from 1500 to 1920, but after then ‘the Americas’ becomes exclusively the United States. Also, he neglects the crucial years in the formation of a European canon (also the period which saw increased colonisation) with no mention of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schumann or Schubert, while Hijleh does bring up Jordi Savall and a range of Spanish Renaissance composers, on the grounds of the musical exchanges between Spain and its American colonies in the early modern era. Moreda Rodriguez argued that an equally plausible case could be made for the global reach of Bach, Mozart or Italian opera.

She also hesitantly evoked the concept of ‘music history minus Beethoven’ as recently imagined by Leah Broad, in order to argue for the difficult place where this book is situated, neither wholly a textbook nor a research monograph. It would be unlikely to be of service to first year undergraduates who have only a partial knowledge of some of the musical traditions (though it was not entirely clear why Moreda Rodriguez thought so, though she acknowledge a sensitive tutor could use it productively). Instead, she thought it might have a more polemical aim: specifically to test, in front of other academics, ‘the viability of a single-authored, predominantly narrative music history’. In this, she thought he succeeded to a significant degree.

In contrast with Hijleh, who acknowledges that power in music and power in the real world do not simply mirror one another, Moreda Rodriguez noted how ‘power dynamics and otherness’ are central to the essays in Bohlman’s edited volume, many of which studiously disregard aesthetic and qualitative matters and avoid any engagement with musical detail. As such, the whole history of Western opera (itself undoubtedly something which has had global ramifications, as Moreda Rodriguez pointed out) is simply reduced to a perfunctory mention of its colonial aspects. While the introduction disavows narrative, the chronological ordering of the book – from non-European music during the Antiquity and Medieval Times, through ‘The Enlightenment and world music’s historical turn’, to ‘Music histories of the folk and nation’ – does imply something of the type. Despite various attempts to define ‘world music’, few try to ascertain how this might differ from a global history of music; any such venture is viewed as an academic exercise rather than something which could impact upon the regular work of musicologists. Chapters written from a position of great expertise, such as those of Peter Manuel (‘Musical cultures of mechanical reproduction’) or Bonnie C. Wade (‘Indian music history in the context of global encounters’) are nonetheless both rushed and founded upon too many assumptions to work as introductory texts, but contain too little critical or innovative detail to qualify as research chapters.

Strohm’s project has so far resulted in one edited volume (Strohm (ed.), Studies on a Global History of Music: A Balzan Musicology Project (London: Routledge, 2018)), while two more are in preparation. In his acceptance speech, Strohm expressed his motivation to ‘learn new things on the musical relations between geographical regions and chronological eras’, focusing less on narrative than attempts to ‘explore, through assembled case studies, parameters and terminologies that are suitable to describe a history of many different voices’. As Moreda Rodriguez, noted, at that stage such parameters and terminologies were not yet defined, but the publication and workshops suggest overlaps with the approaches of both Hijleh and Bohlman. She urged, as further outputs are published, investigation of whether these ends have been achieved more efficiently than in existing collections which relate single issues or questions to diverse cultures and contexts, but do not necessarily explore global or transnational issues.

In conclusion, Moreda Rodriguez anticipated the appearance of further such attempts at writing global music history, but also that the search for some ultimate such history will prove elusive. Many of them might reveal less about music history than about ‘the shared assumptions, values and trends embedded in the musicological community at particular moments in time’ as with the contributors to Bohlman’s volume in their ‘attempt to understand world music history under the now-fashionable lens of power dynamics’. As such, such works may be ‘less interesting as product than they are as process’.


[To be continued in Part 2]


Musicological Observations (7): Articles and Links from Ethnomusicology Debate

On June 1st, 2016, there took place at City University a debate on the subject ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists now?’, with a panel consisting of Amanda Bayley, Tore Lind, Laudan Nooshin, Michael Spitzer, and myself, chaired by Alexander Lingas. The starting point for the debate was Nicholas Cook’s article ‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 48-70.

Here is a video of the full debate.


Various statements from the debate and responses have been posted on my blog and that of Music at City. Here are all of these.

Position Statement of Ian Pace

Position Statement of Laudan Nooshin

Position Statement of Michael Spitzer

(My statement and that of Spitzer can also be viewed on the City blog here)

There are also reports and responses to the event from Ben Smith and Rachel Cunniffe here.

Here is a long section from the book The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism, by Paul Harper-Scott, cited by Nooshin in her statement, together with further reflections on the subject from me.

And here is my response to Nooshin’s statement, together with a series of ethnographically sourced statements of other musicologists’ and students’ experiences of ethnomusicology and ethnomusicologists.

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

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


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

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

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

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

In that context, the following should be very clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

Video of debate ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’ and responses

The video of the full debate which took place at City University on June 1st, 2016 ‘Are we all Ethnomusicologists Now?’, is now online for all to view.

Participants were Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), Tore Tvarnø Lind (Copenhagen University), Laudan Nooshin (City University), Ian Pace (City University) and Michael Spitzer (Liverpool University). The debate was chaired by Alexander Lingas (City University).

The following are some other important links: first, reports and responses to the debate by Rachel Cunniffe and Ben Smith

I have published my own position statement online here.

Nooshin’s position statement and slides can be found here.

And here is a further blog post of mine giving the full context of Paul Harper-Scott’s remarks cited during the debate, and some other reflections.

A fuller response from me to Nooshin’s position statement is here.

This debate has generated much discussion more widely, and hopefully will continue to do so. Many thanks to everyone for taking part.