Musicological Thoughts 11: The Value of Empirical Musicology for the Performer?

One of the biggest challenges for any performer of jazz, at least as the majority of jazz players I know would say, has to do with rhythm, and specifically the performance of uneven rhythms so as to ‘swing’. Some have tried to notate these, sometimes very approximately, sometimes in much more detail. But the consensus appears to be that codifying such a rhythm then simply executing according to the ‘rules’ thus generated will sound artificial and contrived. Furthermore, it is difficult via such an approach to be flexible in one’s ‘swinging’, as the nature of this can be subject to small variations depending upon the musical moment, or to respond to the particular variants heard from other players in a group setting. So in general, there is thought to be no real substitute for simply playing with others on a regular basis, and absorbing the rhythm through listening, imitation, osmosis.

A parallel situation applies to language learning. While it may be possible to learn a good deal of vocabulary and grammar, even some idiomatic usage, through independent study, from textbooks, etc., many believe there is no real substitute from being immersed amongst native speakers, having to communicate on a regular basis without necessarily having recourse to ‘guides’ when immediate responses are needed. This is not least to do with the process of learning a decent accent (something generally thought rarely to be possible to such an extent as one could pass as a native speaker to other native speakers, unless one learns from a young age), but also absorbing a wide range of idiomatic employment in the form of speech (writing is a different matter).

It would be rash to rule out the possibility that there could ever be found means of learning jazz performance, or languages, in such a way that obviates the necessity for such regular interaction amongst those who have absorbed the idioms. But I am not aware of such means having yet been discovered and comprehensively tested.

This brings me to the question of empirical musicology (by which I mean specifically that using empirical means of measurement of aural data, by software such as Sonic Visualiser or other alternatives) for the analysis of musical performance, something which has been on my mind during a (generally excellent and very stimulating) conference on Performance Studies which I am currently attending (today is the last day). Empirical Musicology is a relatively recent development, about which an important edited volume was published in 2004, edited by Nicholas Cook and Eric Clarke, and for which there is a dedicated academic journal. With roots in the use of quantitative approaches employed in music psychology, and some others relating to such things as bodily motion during performance, a range of musicologists have increasingly used this to analyse various parameters of musical performance, especially tempo and its modification, rhythm, also pitch, timbre (notoriously difficult to analyse using more qualitative means), dynamics and so on.

The value of musical analysis (in the broadest sense) is not uncontested; it is an activity developed within the realms of academia which has not necessarily played a significant role (or a role at all) in the actual work of a great many practising musicians past and present. Cook himself, in his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (about which I published an extended review-article which also considers more widely the field of performance studies) was sharply critical of what he described as ‘Analytically-Informed Performance’ (AIP) whereby performers shape their interpretations according to priorities determined by analysts. Focusing on some key writings by music analysts Wallace Berry and Eugene Narmour, Cook suggests this implies a hegemonic imposition of academic ideologies on the world of music-making, not least because the dialogue appears one-way; he believes analysts have as much to learn from listening to performers as vice versa. So far, I can agree that a more two-way approach would be fruitful, but here and elsewhere Cook expresses major scepticism about the possibility that performers could learn anything of value from analysis and analysts, questioning the value at all of a musicological discipline which he has also linked to creating artificial hierarchies of value.

Here I disagree. I have my own scepticism about the value of certain highly systematised modes of analysis, such as grew up especially in the early post-1945 era in the United States, which has been plausibly argued to have been driven both by a positivistic, scientistic academic climate in which research in the arts and humanities was valued largely to the extent it could on the surface mimic the trappings of a ‘science’, but also by the growth of mass education and the concomitant need to find approaches to analysis which could be taught on an industrial scale and learned almost by rote. Much of the analytical work I have read from continental European musicologists has been no less rigorous or thorough, but more ad hoc in nature, freely adapting a variety of tools (or creating new ones) according to needs of the music at hand, and as such avoiding the unhappy situation by which the key criterion appears to be whether the music serves to bolster the theory, rather than vice versa.

But if one embraces a broader conception of analysis, to encompass most approaches to understanding the inner workings of a musical composition (or a performance or other sonic phenomenon), then I think not only can this be invaluable for performers (and listeners) possessing any basic curiosity, but also actually something that many performers do as a matter of course to some extent, as I argued in a keynote lecture entitled ‘In Defence of Analytically-Informed Performance’, delivered in a conference in São Paulo in 2019, which I intend to revise for publication at some point soon.

It is very far from unusual, for example, for a performer to gauge a series of mounting dynamic curves in a series of phrases leading to a mini-climax according to the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic properties of the information contained in the score. This may be done in a relatively intuitive and non-systematic manner, but nonetheless does constitute a form of analysis, a discernment of aspects of the score which reveal something about the musical processes, which then inform aspects of the realisation of the score in performance. Whether this perspective is generated simply by playing the music to oneself and listening, or some more studied process of identifying chord progressions, melodic properties, etc., does not make it any more or less ‘analysis’, in my view.

I was doing this myself (essentially intuitively) when practising the opening passage of the last movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, op. 17, yesterday, trying out different ways of shaping the two-bar phrases in bars 5-14, in terms of relative dynamic peaks, my choices informed by such factors as the extent to which the music modulates away from the home key before returning to a dominant harmony on the relative minor in bar 10, or the transformation of the bass line from a descending progression starting in whole tones towards a chromatic one in bars 11-14. Much is at stake in these bars in terms of the expressive and emotional trajectory prior to a return to a dominant pedal point in the home key in bar 15. Similarly, the shift to the major submediant in bar 2 is striking in the context of the wider style. Even after having played this work for over 30 years and having heard many others perform it, it still makes an impact, and so I wonder about such questions as whether to register this sentiment by a small holding back of the pulse and tenuto at the beginning of bar 2.

Even if I am describing aspects of the score above using very basic technical terms, I do not believe that I am in any sense unusual in grappling with such interpretive questions; the use of that language is simply a way to articulate some information discerned essentially intuitively so as to be comprehensible to one reading this piece of writing.

Empirical musicology is on another level in terms of the technical language and illustrations employed. Over the course of the conference, I have been looking at highly detailed charts, multi-coloured shapes (containing many hues) to illustrate timbral properties, animated graphics to trace the variation in basic pulse during a performance. Much of this yields interesting insights and conclusions, some of which appear to be established on a more secure basis than might have been possible otherwise.

But then I do ask the basic question: what purpose does this research serve? In one case, the researcher suggested that they were attempting to codify the rhythmic practices found to be common in a particular regionality when performing some music identified with that regionality, so that those performing such works in more remote locations could do a type of ’empirical musicology in reverse’ (my term, not theirs) and translate these back into performance.

But this is where I become more sceptical, and wonder if the results of such a process would ever really convince, for the same reasons as those outlined above with respect to jazz or language learning. How much music-making can really be reduced to a finite set of stylistic principles which can be codified and reproduced so as to create plausible imitation of the ‘real thing’? I would need to hear a range of realisations of this model to judge that, but do not have a huge amount of faith. Musical style is not, I believe, something so easily reified, but a flexible and continuously developing thing, driven as much (in repertoire involving more than one musician) by regular interactions between players as by collective adherence to a set of rules.

The context of this had to do with global music-making, in particular performance of a certain repertoire at localities a long distance from the music’s point of origin, also the place where the most regular and distinctive performance tradition has occurred over an extended period. But one possible conclusion from the above – that it is no more possible to perform in a relatively ‘unaccented’ style without regular interactions with the music’s ‘native speakers’ than is the case for speaking a language – may be unacceptable in terms of global aspirations. I should emphasise here that the analogy of a ‘native speaker’ does not really have anything to do with particular upbringing, nationality and certainly not ethnicity; it is about whether one has had the opportunities over an extended period for acculturation through musical interaction with others well-versed in the style. This ought in theory to be perfectly possible amongst diaspora communities; a group of Georgian folk singers who relocate in Brazil could in some sense continue a tradition of such singing in the new location, and incorporate into it others not originally from Georgia (whether other social and political factors might influence the extent to which this actually happens is of course a whole other set of questions).

Empirical musicology applied to performance attempts to provide an alternative to this, a means of learning a style through applying a set of principles obtained through systematic empirical analysis of performance. Those employing those are of course also free to listen to the original performances too, but what they may not be able to do is play together with other musicians versed in it.

Is this a viable alternative? I am not sure, and would need much more evidence to be convinced. But there is another possibility to consider, related to the considerations of the post-1945 United States academic environment I described above. Whether or not this research has a wider ‘impact’ (to use a buzzword familiar to all those in UK academia), could such empirical musicology be notable primarily as a means of trying to turn a lot of what musicians do anyhow, without necessarily having any input from academics, so as to appear like a type of quasi-scientific ‘research’ which is thought to be the best way to secure the status and funding of a particular academic sub-disciplines?


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.