Guest Post by Eva Moreda Rodriguez in response to my Spectator article – ‘How we read, how we write’Posted: October 16, 2021
The following is a guest blog post by Dr Eva Moreda Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Glasgow, in response both to my recent Spectator article (‘Roll Over, Beethoven’ – online version entitled ‘How the culture wars are killing classical music’ , Spectator, 7 October 2021) – I should add that neither of these titles were my own) and a range of responses on social media, including this by John Aulich.
How we read, how we write
Eva Moreda Rodriguez
A frustrating aspect of the debate around Ian Pace’s The Spectator article on social media was feeling that not all participants seemed to have read the same text as I did. Some accused Pace of wanting everyone to study music in his way (i.e. highly formalistic, dots on pages, music per se and nothing else). I read the article about four times in search of proof that this was indeed what Pace was saying; at some point, I even started to suspect that my ability to understand written English (which, after fifteen years in British academia, I considered to be pretty close to that of a native) was much poorer than I had assumed. Ultimately, though, I remain unconvinced. Pace writes, for example: “It is time to reassert the value of the study of music in its own right”. Does “reassert” imply the exclusion of everything which is not “the music in its own right”? True, Pace could (and probably should) have phrased his claim more inclusively – but the fact that he failed to write, for example, “reassert the value of the study of music in its own right alongside other approaches” is not in itself an indication that he believes these other approaches should be abandoned.
The frustration, however, led me to consider my own ways of reading and of writing: like Pace and J.P.E. Harper-Scott (although perhaps not as acutely as them), I have also felt for a while now that the study of Western art music qua sounding music (as opposed to social practice) is increasingly marginalized in British music academia. Might have I been misreading utterances from colleagues and stranger, twisting meanings and filling gaps based on my prejudices and previous experiences? I would like to pause here on the word “experience”, as I think it is key to this debate. If we are intent on answering the question “is the study of Western art music being marginalized in academia?”, we could (and should) invoke statistics (which, however, don’t tend to be readily available: we’d need to compile them first): numbers of jobs available by specialization; how this might have changed over the years; how many British universities offer courses in X, Y or Z; whether projects in certain areas are disproportionately likely to get funding, and so on. However, the response to such question will also be inevitably shaped by human interaction (with colleagues from our departments, with others we encounter at conferences, funding panels, professional associations, editorial committee). There is a whole new layer of information there that will likely influence our response: for example, when our department is presented to the outer world (in an Open Day, in a TV or radio programme), are certain areas privileged while others are hidden as a sort of dirty secret? How are teaching loads distributed between different kinds of specialisms? Are certain kinds of scholarship or approaches systematically disparaged in informal interactions or “banter” among colleagues (“same old same old”, “going into the archives and digging up positivistic crap”, “gibberish”, etc.)?
Moreover, such personal interactions tend to happen in an environment which demands extreme levels of productivity and incentivises that we see ourselves as rivals rather than colleagues. In addition, during the last year and a half most our interactions with colleagues are likely to have taken place in the emotionally alienating environment of conference calls. There is a risk here, I think, for us to become entrenched in our prior positions and overreact to anything we see as an attack on them. William Cheng – cited by Pace in his article – talks in his book about “paranoid scholarship”, which he has little time for. I am myself a bit of an enthusiast of paranoid scholarship – I take great pleasure in anticipating which kinds of objections might be put forward to my arguments, and how I might best address them before they have even been articulated: I think this has made me a better scholar –, and I would like to suggest that perhaps we should all be more paranoid when doing our scholarship, but less paranoid in everything else, especially when it comes to interacting with colleagues.
So, when I feel that my area of study is becoming marginalized, where does this feeling come from? And might it be that I am subjected to confirmation bias, in that perhaps I tend to read perfectly innocent statements calling for increasing diversification of the music curriculum (a goal I share and have worked towards) as synonymous with “classical music must disappear from the curriculum”? A key point here is the fact that this feeling comes overwhelmingly from interactions on social media (mostly Twitter), rather than in-person. I am, however, dissatisfied with the explanation that Twitter is its own world, where we build bombastic personas or let off steam before going back to our real-life normal, in which we allegedly express who we truly are: at UK universities, we are increasingly expected to use Twitter for professional purposes; the personas we build there might help us obtain professional contacts, co-authors, PhD students – they are part of who we are.
In any case, my sense of how these interactions go is something like this:
A: Cancel classical music!
A: No one said we shouldn’t teach classical music anymore you silly cookie! We’re just saying, why don’t we teach more hip hop?
But I realize that such exchanges, even if they give this impression to me, do not always happen so neatly as laid out above. For example: “A” might be a composite of several people: it might be that there is indeed an “A” which says something to the effect of “Cancel classical music”, then C and D re-tweet it, then, to B’s protestations, C indeed says that we should teach less classical music, D instead is more conciliatory and says that statement A was made for rhetorical effect, but that no one in their right mind would dream of taking it literally. Sometimes the exchange might happen more or less as above, but more protracted in time – so that A says something eminently provocative at a certain point, perhaps for rhetorical effect in a specific context, but then, in a different exchange, they saw it fitter to articulate their argument for diversification in more rhetorically conventional ways.
However, statements to the effect of the “cancel classical music” above are indeed made (or also: generalizations to the effect that classical music is sexist and racist – and if sexism and racism is something no sane person would want at their universities, where does this leave classical music?). They are indeed made by people employed in academia or with some power within it; contrarily, I would struggle to remember instances of similar statements going in the opposite direction (e.g. “music outside the classical canon has no place in universities”).True, I am sure that if we dug up we would find plenty in the comment section of Slipped Disc and similar outlets; these proclamations, however, unlike the above, do not come from individuals who can make decisions about curriculum. To be clear, I believe in freedom of speech and in academia and elsewhere, and I believe in the right of everyone to make such statements as provocatively as they want (as long as they are free of insults and calls to violence, of course). I am also not contrary to the idea that hyperbole and rhetoric effect might have a place, sometimes, in academic debate. I would just like to humbly suggest that colleagues making such statements consider the context (for example, what about PhD students in their departments working on classical music topics, who might be anxious about their job prospects?). I hope I am not asking more than I am trying to give myself as I try to disentangle my own knee-jerk reactions to such proclamations.
If we are to take such provocative statements merely as hyperbole, as an invitation to diversify Music studies (which I think most of us can agree with), it occurs to me that two questions we might want to tackle are: if X approach is to be introduced into Music studies, does it mean everyone has to engage with it? Does it mean every university will have to teach it? Because, I have to confess, what has often led me to feel as if classical music was increasingly marginalized (and, after conversations with colleagues, it seems I am not the only one) was the urging, peremptory tone in the calls for including one approach or another into music study, as if implying that everyone has to do it or else is suspect or, at best, charmingly out of date. But is it so? I myself have made in my own publications that “we” must engage with this or that (e.g., with exile and displaced musicians). And now I wonder: am I being equally peremptory? Might these claims have been read by anyone to imply that every music scholar should engage with exile, or else they are suspect of minimizing the plight of exiled individuals? I sincerely hope not, and I would be horrified if anyone had felt this was the case. I hope the context might have clarified that by “we” I meant, mostly, scholars of Spanish art music between, say, 1930 and 1980, and probably scholars of musical modernism too – but in the understanding that, while exile is a category that I certainly think both groups should have in their minds at some point, for some it is likely to be a footnote rather than a central preoccupation.
Why, therefore, do calls to engage with other categories sound more peremptory to me? Upon reflection, I think the main difference is that engagement with these other categories is often framed as a sort of querelle des anciens et des modernes in ways that I find scholarly unsolid and inaccurate. For example: it is not uncommon in social media debates to find the assumption that, if you don’t regard X as crucial to your scholarship, it’s because you haven’t read the right theorists, or you haven’t understood them: “Read XYZ, who has demonstrated this” (in which “this” is not something verifiable and falsifiable, such as, say, the date of composition of a work). Interestingly, a couple of the most charitable responses to Harper-Scott’s and Pace’s articles intended to portray them as out-of-date, yet ultimately, harmless scholars: their preferred methods of enquiry are now as obsolete as is Lamarckian; let’s pity them and hope they can find solace somewhere else. I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but, whereas paradigms in musicology of course change, the situation is a bit more complex than that: the study of, say, medieval musical palaeography (one of the pillars of musicology when it was first born) can happily coexist, and perhaps even be cross-pollinized, by approaches to the music of the Middle Ages that put more emphasis on the conditions that surrounded music-making. I am sure that many of those who opposed Pace’s article know better than to regard history as a teleological, progress-driven, quasi-Darwinian narrative, and so it perplexes me that they do so with the history of their own discipline.
But, even if we accept that some boring, lineal progress will happen and some approaches will eventually become extinct, it seems to me that my own understanding of where we are in this timeline differs from the perception of those whom I can describe as being on the other side of the debate. I arrived in the UK fifteen years ago to study for a PhD after having completed my undergraduate degree in Spain. At the time, the social history of music was a well-established strand in British and even in Spanish academia; the academic study of popular music felt newer to me, but perhaps it would not feel so now: the pioneers (Frith, Middleton, Tagg) probably now have the right age to be our undergraduates’ grandparents. In short, I do not think it is accurate to portray (as more than a few do) frictions within the discipline as a bunch of old, decrepit formalists resisting the reformist enthusiasm of those who insist (rightly) that music is more than that. Not so long ago, I listened to a fascinating, thought-provoking conference paper which nevertheless disconcerted me somewhat because of its author’s insistence that for a musicologist to privilege society and culture instead of the formal elements of the music extremely uncommon. Is it, in 2021? I would venture that a cursory look at say, what the top five musicology journals have published in the last few years would say otherwise.
In the same way as many did not see themselves reflected in the claim that there’s a push to cancel Beethoven, I often do not recognize the picture that claims that present-day students are fed a strict diet of Bach, Beethoven and Schenker. Maybe this is true in US academia, where I understand the music history survey, harmony and counterpoint are still a staple of the curriculum, but I would say it is emphatically not so in the UK, and I sometimes wish those on the opposite side of the debate would be more forthcoming in recognizing this. I have to confess here that my own experience has perhaps made me quite embittered in this respect: as a new PhD student in the UK, I enthusiastically embraced the claim (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) that music does not simply mean classical music, but other musics too. Even though my expertise was nominally in classical music, I felt the need to engage with the broader world out there, and when I started to teach I made sure to introduce plenty of non-classical topics in my teaching (in courses such as “Analysis” “Historiography”, “Research skills”, which don’t call for a specific repertoire); I also try to engage with other areas of Music study via reading and attending music research seminars. However, over the years I have noticed that colleagues whose main specialization was in ethnomusicology or popular music didn’t feel they needed to diversify their own teaching and engagement to the same extent, and this I’ve found sometimes disheartening, particularly when some of these same colleagues felt the need to point out that my own teaching wasn’t diversified enough (and this often based on the fact that I was, nominally, a “classical” musicologist, and not on the actual content of my classes). Conversations with colleagues at other UK universities suggest that my experience is not uncommon: many scholars who publish predominantly on classical music teach outside those topics, whereas I would dare to say the opposite is less common: while we can surely celebrate the fact that some Music scholars have eclectic research and teaching profiles, we should perhaps also ask ourselves whether cultivating such an eclectic profile (which is surely rewarding, but takes time and work) has become de facto a requirement for some but not for others.
I also wish there was more recognition that the canon is not hegemonic anymore at British universities. I have long resigned myself to the fact that, when teaching Pauline Oliveros’s Bye bye Butterfly, only a handful of students will have heard of Puccini; when teaching Tchaikovsky in relation to queer theory, only a handful will know sonata form and its ideologies to any level of detail, and so on. In his response to Pace’s article, John Aulich used Notre Dame organum as an example, implying that it is a staple of undergraduate teaching. At my university, I can conclusively say that the number of students who encountered Notre Dame organum in the classroom can be counted on the fingers of one hand – i.e. those who took my non-compulsory course in medieval music last year.
I am not saying that civilization is at risk of falling apart if we don’t remedy this; I am saying that this is the reality at the university where I teach, and I would say at many universities in the UK, and that this reality is at odds with the pretence that the content of UK HE music education is still predominantly white, male and formalist. These days, I find myself pondering whether the brave new world that was being envisaged in British academy fifteen, twenty years ago, a world centered around “musics” and not just classical music, is finally here, but maybe we are all realizing it is not that great and we are reacting, in our own way, against that. And, in my own perception, the fact that it is not great it is not necessarily because of anything inherent to the repertoires studied, but because of marketization pressures, de-funding, internal department politics, sometimes even politics plain and simple, and so on. One thing, however, seems clearer to me now more than ever: the problems with music education in HE were and are not due to the hegemony, or even the mere presence of, the classical canon.