My contribution to the debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’

I posted earlier my contribution to one component of the City School of Arts and Social Sciences debate on the legacy of Stuart Hall, which I co-convened. Another event within the same online conference was an excellent debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’, convened by Natalie Tsaldarakis and chaired by Professor Alexander Lingas (City, University of London), which took place on Monday 22 June 2020. The panellists were Natalie Tsaldarakis (City, University of London), myself (City, University of London, Dr Izabela Wagner (University of Warsaw), Professor Ratko Delorko (pianist), Ben Johnson (tenor). The event was stimulated by a lively debate following a tweet from Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at King’s College, University of London.

 

The abstract for the debate said the following:

In this year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary I propose to organise a public debate following the assertion by Dr. Leech-Wilkinson through social media that ‘classical music performance has nothing to say about current concerns’ taken together with his referenced work on the matter (Challenging Performance). Purportedly, the classical performing world as a whole offers approximations of a single idealised performance and rejects deviations, in the process becoming inaccessible to the audience, and finally culturally divorcing itself from current concerns. Thus, this public debate would welcome a balanced discussion about the role, meaning, and relevance of classical music.

Here is the link to the first episode of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance, which was one of the subjects for discussion. 

It is important that practising professional musicians not working in academia were able to participate in this debate. As I indicate at the beginning of my contribution, academics frequently disparage musicians and the classical music world, but are rarely open to listening to criticism coming from the opposite direction. Leech-Wilkinson was invited to participate in this debate, but declined. One hopes that in the future he will be prepared to subject his views to more scrutiny from beyond circles of like-minded academics.

I am hoping that the video of the full debate will go online soon, and if so, I will post a link to it. Here is my contribution, of which I delivered a slightly abridged version in June.

 

It is common to hear musicologists passing judgement upon the work and other activities of classical musicians, sometimes in a deprecatory fashion, much less common to hear the reverse. There are various possible explanations for this; amongst the most plausible, I believe, would be that a good deal of contemporary musicology makes relatively little impact upon classical musicians in general, and so some find it insufficiently important or prominent to warrant comment. This is not a happy state of affairs, and there are many ways it can be demonstrated not always to have been the case. Certainly in the field of historical performance there has long been fruitful exchange between scholars and performers. More widely, those who simply draw upon relatively general literature on music to inform their music-making – I am thinking here of general histories or basic analytical work such as are aimed at those who are not academic musicologists, but have a sound general musical training – frequently imbibe the fruits of more detailed scholarly micro-studies which have informed the best of these more general texts. The writings on music of Charles Rosen, whose academic training was as a literary scholar rather than a musicologist, and who only ever held a few short-term fellowships in music departments, would nonetheless have been impossible without his wider knowledge of musicological scholarship, about which he sometimes wrote in more detail.

But while there is in my opinion still plenty of vital scholarship being produced which has at least the potential to be of value to practising musicians, there has been a counter-current for around three decades, a brand of scholarship which frequently seeks to indict numerous varieties of classical music in particular, charging it with colonialism, misogyny, elitism, or at best irrelevance. It is a bizarre spectacle to see such a number of musicologists – a disproportionate number of whom, as the musicologist Paul Harper-Scott has demonstrated, come from very privileged backgrounds in which a sound training in classical music can be taken for granted – spend a large part of their careers trying to do down this realm.[1]

Now, I would never argue that classical music is wholly autonomous of issues of imperialism, gender, race, social division, by any means, but nor do I accept those arguments that would reduce that music primarily or solely to such factors, with a concomitant disdain for any suggestion of musical ‘autonomy’. This direction, far more prevalent in Anglophone musicology than that from elsewhere, has been steered by self-styled ‘new’ musicologists, some ethnomusicologists, sociologists of music, and others who would view the study of classical music as just one relatively small component of cultural studies, its ‘relevance’ to be gauged primarily on the basis of the size of its audiences, by which measure it would become a minor concern compared to commercial pop.

It is in this context that we should consider this now somewhat notorious remark of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, even though he is not really a figure commonly associated with the ‘new musicology’, nor with other of the factions I mentioned, and was for a long period primarily known as a scholar of medieval music. As I said, a key axiom of ‘new musicology’ (or its British near-counterpart, ‘critical musicology’) is a denial of the possibility that music can, let alone should, exhibit any autonomous features, those which cannot simply be explained by social, ideological or other determinants. Yet even if one believes this to be the case, demonstrating such a degree of determination is a difficult process, because of the nature of the medium, and attempts to do so often fall back upon hugely speculative associations. It is not difficult to see how some choral ode to a monarch is linked to aspects of feudalism and associated ceremony, but much harder to explain every note of it can be deduced from such an ideological viewpoint, even less why some such such works, but not others, have proved to have a lasting appeal long after such monarchs are consigned to history. To argue that Josquin’s masses or Bach’s sacred cantatas or Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus could only ever be meaningful or valuable to those committed to the particular religious beliefs associated with such works would be myopic in the extreme, and I maintain the same is true of much other music written for a particular social function or in a specific cultural context.

But such a view persists in sub-sections of musicology, and frequently takes another modified form, an active disapproval of music considered more abstract or autonomous. This view is not new, for sure, and is rooted in the nineteenth-century opposition between a more autonomous musical ‘romanticism’ and species of ‘realist’ music given to external depiction, such as fuelled opposing factions in the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin in particular has been quite unequivocal in his partisanship in this respect,[2] drawing largely upon terminology largely developed in a musicological context by one of his nemeses, Carl Dahlhaus.[3] Another American musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, concludes some extravagant hermeneutical readings on the basis of relatively slight evidence,[4] but in particular is clear that the condition for music to be meaningful requires some external referent, a position which caused even Taruskin to balk somewhat.[5]

In an article which was in part a critique of Kramer, Rosen said that ‘music has meaning but very little reference’, having previously argued that ‘It is not that music is more autonomous [than literature], but more ambiguous, slippery: it will not allow itself to be caught and pinned down like a novel or even like a poem.’[6] The same could be said of sculpture, or of dance, and for none of these art forms is this a weakness. But for Leech-Wilkinson, it would appear that it is, as revealed through his disparaging tweet copied above.

This attracted a fair amount of charged response from musicians such as Peter Donohoe, Paul McCreesh, Lars Vogt, as can be seen in the thread which followed it, and here:

 

It should be noted that Leech-Wilkinson’s comment was itself a response to another tweet by Donohoe bemoaning the lack of mention of classical music in a BBC news item on the grave financial implications of the virus upon the arts. Leech-Wilkinson’s response was widely regarded as a highly insensitive comment at a time when, due to COVID-19, classical musicians and classical music per se are fighting for their very economic survival. An established musicologist, Emeritus Professor at one of the most prestigious of British institutions, King’s College, University of London, occupies at the very least a position of relative power compared to those dependent for their livelihoods on the field he is berating. However, when this was pointed out, Leech-Wilkinson did issue a partial apology in response to McCreesh.

But what would it mean for classical performance to have ‘something to say about current concerns’, specifically the virus? I fear we will soon come across a whole host of lachrymose works with opportunistic titles or dedications, COVID-19 Requiem, ‘To the memory of those we lost to the virus’, Lockdown Lament, and so on, just as many composers rushed to produce works alluding to 9/11.[7] In many cases the music employed might equally have been produced to order for any other traumatic event  – and will be interpreted as communicating an emotion of sadness, and thereby ‘tell’ listeners that they should remember how sad this is. Any other critical or aesthetic judgement of the piece may then be viewed as demonstrating some lack of proper sensitivity. It is not difficult to imagine at some future date a theatrically-inclined composer instructing all musicians to wear face masks during their piece (independently of any medical need), while the composer will speak in earnest tones in a pre-concert talk in about the importance of preserving memory and the like.

This is not to say that there cannot be value in music which attempts some wider commentary upon traumatic events – a strong counter-example would be Shostakovich’s settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony – which generally avoids the type of mawkish sentimentality that can be found in many previous essays in the type of composition I have just described. Shostakovich’s work of course involves a text with vivid subject matter, and so hermeneutical readings are somewhat less contentious than has been the case for some of his purely instrumental works.

Ultimately, however, I do not accept that the primary purpose of music is to do social good, and reject prescriptive talk insisting that it must do so in order to be considered significant, as Leech-Wilkinson’s comment appears to imply. This view is not really so different from that of Victorian moralists such as Leech-Wilkinson’s compatriots John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold, who insisted on a socially edifying role for art.[8] What all appear to fear is the possibility that art may have value through such attributes as opening up new realms of consciousness, sensation, emotion, in ways which cannot be understood simply as an expression of moral philosophy or political dogma.

It is far too early to ascertain any conclusive scholarly data on how and to what extent classical music or other art might have been important to people during the time of COVID-19. All I can point to is that there have been a great many making the most of the small number of streamed videos of concerts, operas and other musical events, and by no means just those in which one might find particular references which can be linked to the current situation.

For the purposes of this debate, I also listened through to Episode 1 of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance podcast. This features a mixture of frequent pleas as if from a beleaguered position, evoking some apparently sternly ‘policed’ environment of performance, which a range of comments suggesting an equal wish to ‘police’ this himself. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Leech-Wilkinson, while professing to wish for a more pluralistic culture of performance, is really arguing for one dominated by the aesthetics of the early twentieth-century. There are some quite bizarre claims, for example that only some historically ‘correct’ performances being allowed in conservatoires, which would be belied by conversations with those responsible for teaching historical performance at many conservatoires, frequently marginalised and dismissed by ‘star’ teachers.

Leech-Wilkinson’s examples of the Moonlight Sonata, claiming that both are acceptable in classical music circles, appear to contradict some of his earlier claims. No examples are given of these audience members who apparently hate something because it is ‘incorrect’. Also, when noting that Paderewski plays with the two hands desynchronised, Leech-Wilkinson argues as if this practice were not still employed by a fair range of pianists today, including Tom Beghin in the example he gives! My own observation of a large range of recordings through the course of the century shows that this practice never wholly disappeared, just that some came to use it rather more discreetly than was once more common. But even in Paderewski’s time, there were marked differences of degree as well. I myself regularly employ such a technique, not only between hands but also between parts in the same hand, but so do plenty of others, if not necessarily in such a stark fashion as Paderewski. Whether Paderewski’s style mirrors that of a century earlier, during Beethoven’s lifetime, we can never know for sure, but on the basis of other information which does exist about performance in the early nineteenth-century, it is safe to assume that there were a variety of different practices, as there are today. There is nothing to stop a Presto rendition of the Moonlight Sonata, as we hear on the podcast, if someone thinks it worthwhile – Leech-Wilkinson acts as his own ‘police’ when he declares ‘it works musically’, though I find his criteria narrow, by their rendering tempo as a secondary, even trivial, concern. He is perfectly entitled to his view, but so are some of the other reviewers and commenters on YouTube – it seems as if Leech-Wilkinson wants to ‘police’ them.

Would Paderewski be denied a conservatoire place today? I am not sure that can be answered unequivocally. Were critics and teachers somehow less censorious during Leech-Wilkinson’s golden age? I do not think so, as any survey of critical reception or pedagogical writings from musicians active during that time will show (obvious examples include those of Josef Lhevinne or Heinrich Neuhaus).[9] Furthermore, many would have found themselves pigeonholed on national grounds, explicitly attacked for being Jewish, for being women, with many attributes of their playing directly linked to such things. Very few non-white performers were ever heard in the West, and the opportunities for performers from non-monied backgrounds to achieve performing careers were very considerably fewer. The repertoire performed was very much smaller – works such as Schubert’s late sonatas or many of Liszt’s works or for that matter Bach’s cantatas, save for a small few, were practically unknown. Also – and this is no small point – the number of those prepared to explore earlier instruments, rather than assume that the most modern ones always entailed ‘progress’ in all respects, was very much smaller than today, and those who did occupied a very marginal position in performing culture. We need to remember these aspects of early twentieth-century performing culture, every bit as ‘policed’ as our own if not more so, rather than view it through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.

If looking for more possibilities than appear to work musically at the moment, Leech-Wilkinson might consider more of the phenomenally creative work going on in early music, for example the medieval ensemble Graindelavoix, the manic virtuosity of some of the Italian baroque groups, or the vast amount of embellishment enacted by Robert Levin in performances of Mozart Concertos, so relentless as to be mannered. I am sure that he is aware of these; the choice to ignore them is one reason I believe his contribution is essentially polemical in nature.

Many of the other points made in the podcast concerning beliefs and aesthetics constitute more straw man arguments. I could add something about where the boundaries might lie in terms of in some sense playing a score,[10] but there is not really time for that. Leech-Wilkinson may have been open to a whole variety of performances of Machaut’s Mass,[11] but I wonder how he would have felt about one in which each part were played on swanee whistles, with most pitches extremely unstable. Everyone has their limits.

Ultimately, I think the majority of this says more about Leech-Wilkinson’s personal projections than about classical music. Furthermore, I do not believe many musicians need his permission to arrive at performances with which they feel pleased and creatively empowered.

 

 

[1] See J.P.E. Harper-Scott, ‘Musicology, the Middlebrow, and the Question of Elitism’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, edited Ian Pace and Peter Tregear (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[2] Richard Taruskin, ‘Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207.

[3] See in particular Carl Dahlhaus, Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, translated Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Dahlhaus was not the first to theorise musical realism, for sure – one can find much earlier writings in English by Norman Cazden, ‘Towards a Theory of Realism in Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 2 (1951), pp. 135-151, not to mention in the work on socialist realism of Boris Asafiev in the 1930s, specifically his Muzykal’naia Forma Kak Protsess (St Petersburg, 1930) and Intonazia (St Petersburg, 1947). A full translation into English of both of these (viewed as two volumes of a complete work) can be found in James Robert Tull, ‘B.V. Asaf’ev’s Musical Form as a Process: Translation and Commentary (Volumes I-III)’ (PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 1977); commentaries in English on both can be found in Malcolm H. Brown, ‘The Soviet Russian Concepts of “Intonazia” and “Musical Imagery”’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4 (1974), pp. 557-567; Gordon D. McQuere, ‘Boris Asafiev and Musical Form as a Process’, in Russian Theoertical Thought in Music, edited Gordon D. McQuere (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), pp. 217-252; and Ildar Khannanov, ‘Boris Asafiev’s Intonatsia in the Context of Music Theory of the 21st Century’, Rasprave, vol. 44, no. 2 (2018), pp. 485-501. However, Dahlhaus went further than others before him in viewing nineteenth-century music in terms of a dichotomy of romanticism against realism, such as had long been applied to literature and the visual arts.

[4] See various of the essays in Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1990); Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1995) and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2002).

[5] Taruskin writes ‘If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures that it prompts, then why not cut out the middleman and go straight for the words and the pictures?’; Richard Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2009), p. 349.

[6] Charles Rosen, ‘The New Musicology’, in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 270. First published as ‘Music à la Mode’, New York Review of Books, vol. 41, no. 12 (23 June 1994), pp. 55-62, review of books by or edited by Lewis Lockwood, Elaine R. Sisman, James Webster, Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, Ruth A. Solie, Steven Paul Scher, Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.

[7] Since giving this paper, I found out that the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2020 ‘will also feature the South African soprano Golda Schultz and a newly commissioned work by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi which responds to the pandemic and will include sounds from the lockdown’. See Mark Brown, ‘BBC Proms: details announced of festival behind closed doors’, The Guardian, 3 July 2020, at https://amp.theguardian.com/music/2020/jul/03/details-of-behind-closed-doors-bbc-proms-announced?CMP=share_btn_tw&__twitter_impression=true&fbclid=IwAR2FbCFbQCKxRPOixGvqasByCu5doAqt-fSfMLpWl2orpJjA1YMYgMqakjc .

[8] For a good study of this, see Edward Alexander, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and the Modern Temper (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973).

[9] Josef Lhevinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, with a new foreword by Rosina Lhevinne (New York: Dover, 1972); Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, translated K.A. Leibovitch (London: Kahn & Averill, 1993).

[10] This is a subject I pursue in my ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, in Unfolding Time, edited Darla Crispin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 151-192.

[11] About which he authored a book: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut’s Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).


Safeguarding and the Avoidance of Deskilling: Position Statement for Debate on ‘Music in the Curriculum: tensions, choices and opportunities’, City, University of London, 15 November 2019

A significantly abridged version of this statement will be delivered at the public debate on ‘Music in the Curriculum: tensions, choices and opportunities’, City, University of London, 15 November 2019. This is chaired by Steven Berryman, Director of Music, City of London School for Girls; Cultural and Creative Learning, City of London Education Team, with a panel consisting of Dr David Hughes, Research Associate at SOAS and expert on Japan and Japanese musical culture, Professor Barbara Kelly, from the Royal Northern College of Music, also President of the Royal Musical Association, Professor Barbara Mawer from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Gillian Moore CBE, Director of Music and former Head of Education, Southbank Centre, Dr Jessica Pitt, Lecturer in Music Education at the Royal College of Music, Dr Henry Stobart, Reader in Music and Ethnomusicology, Royal Holloway, University of London, and Simon Toyne, Executive Director of Music at the David Ross Education Trust and Director of the Eton Choral Courses.

Statement

I wish to speak about two distinct issues facing music education, both of them relating to my own research and areas of expertise. The first is safeguarding, the welfare of pupils undergoing instrumental and vocal tuition. This comes out of my work as a researcher, lobbyist and campaigner on abuse in music education, following the revelations in this respect that have become public since the trial and conviction of Michael Brewer, former Director of Music at Chetham’s School of Music, and his former wife Kay. All of this led to spate of reporting on widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse within specialist music education, leading to hearings on the subject in October at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, for which I gave evidence as an academic expert. A link to videos, transcripts and other documents from these hearings can be found here.

The second issue is the ‘deskilling’ of musical education, and draws upon a range of writings and public statements which began with an article I wrote in 2015 for the 80th birthday of musicologist Arnold Whittall (Ian Pace, ‘To do justice to Arnold’s enviable legacy, we should reverse a tendency towards the de-skilling of a discipline’, Society for Music Analysis Newsletter 2015, pp. 28-9), and was recently the subject of a roundtable at the Royal Musical Association Conference 2019.

Safeguarding

A range of what I believe are my most important earlier writings on abuse and safeguarding in musical education are the following:

‘Reported Cases in Musical Education, 1990-2012, and Issues for a Public Inquiry’ (2013)
‘The Trial of Michael and Kay Brewer and the Death of Frances Andrade, and the Aftermath, 2013’ (2014)
‘The culture of music education lends itself to abuse’, Times Educational Supplement, 8 May 2013
‘Safeguarding’, Music Teacher (April 2015), pp. 13-15
‘Marcel Gazelle and the Culture of the Early Yehudi Menuhin School’ (2013)

I have recently collated a series of forty-five testimonies from former Chetham’s pupils who generally studied there between the 1960s and 1990s. These paint a bleak picture of a school characterised by physical, emotional and sexual abuse on a regular basis, as part of a wider culture of bullying (including from teachers), isolation, grooming, routine humiliation, cynical exploitation of competition, institutionalised misogyny, self-harm and eating disorders.

I would add that the range of testimonies I have heard relating to other specialist music schools over the course of their history are of a similar nature, and would not want to suggest that this has been exclusive just to one school. Nor that conditions from the 1960s to 1990s are the same as today, though we should be cautious in assuming that everything has changed.

There is much to say about measures to ensure these sorts of environments can never arise again, and indeed about how schools which build their reputation upon the success of some their historic students need to accept responsibility and make amends for the immense suffering, often with long-term implications, experienced by some of the others who studied at them. But what I want to pinpoint now is the relationship between the student and their 1-1 instrumental or vocal teacher. The pianist Martin Roscoe said to me that his own teacher, Gordon Green (about whom a PhD student of mine is currently writing a thesis) thought that the best teacher is the one who makes themselves dispensable. I wholeheartedly agree, but have seen the opposite far too often: teachers who try to dominate and take over the lives of their students. We must above all recognise boundaries here, and ensure clear guidelines to instruct teachers for good practice in helping young musicians  to develop and flourish without trying to mould their whole person. I absolutely believe in the importance of vigorous and intensive musical training, especially for those seeking professional careers as musicians, but refuse to accept that this requires any type of demeaning behaviour or language on the part of the teacher, which can often crush a student’s wider confidence. At the heart of safeguarding should be a recognition for the dignity and independence of a student as a person, and a nurturing culture which does not isolate them from the world. I have seen all too well what the alternative entails.

 

Deskilling

Beyond the 2015 article in which I was one of the first to apply the term ‘deskilling’ to musical education, reports from the roundtable I chaired at the RMA 2019 conference can be found here and here. I have also, with Australian musicologist Peter Tregear, been co-editing a book together entitled Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling. Many of the contributors are concerned about a progressive reduction, in the teaching of and research into music at some Anglo-American universities, of many core skills – notation, musicianship, theory and analysis, knowledge of historical context and so on.

Many students can gain degrees in music with only limited development of these skills, if at all. Some then go on to teach in schools and are unable to transmit such skills to their own students. Corresponding, some academics whose own sub-disciplines least require these skills to any great degree can become the most enthusiastic advocates of dumbing-down and deskilling.

Skills are not and should not be set in stone, and different skills are more appropriate for different types of music. But in order to accommodate the possibility of developing some skills to a high level, I do think we should at least question an assumption that an increase in ‘diversity’ in the curriculum is an unquestioned positive in all respects. Without extra teaching time available to accommodate this, superficial breadth often takes the place of depth. Attempts at books on ‘global musics’ and the like, such as Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s Soundscapes (New York: Norton, 2001) inevitably find it hard to avoid presenting a touristic view, which hardly breeds more concrete engagement either with music or its context, and can reduce a lot of music primarily to varieties of exotica.

The skills involved to engage with a Schubert song in terms of its relationship to early nineteenth-century Germanic melodic and harmonic conventions, those of text setting, poetic conventions, early romantic aesthetics, wider German philosophy are of a different order of depth. Scholars who can engage meaningfully with all of these factors (and would have a wider contextual framework owing to knowledge of the composer’s output and much other music of the period) are increasingly out of demand in all but the most elite institutions. In every sense the skills required to engage with various Indian, Chinese, Arabic or other musical traditions, or with the work of Miles Davis or many other musicians in various genres, are just as extensive and require just as wide a range of wider contextual knowledge.

I believe some other valuable teaching skills have been undermined by wider forms of corrosion in academia, various of which will be addressed in the book Peter and I are co-editing. Some of these stem from the marketisation of academic and the need to attract and retain as many students as possible, regardless of prior aptitude or achievement, leading to the growth of ‘soft’ subjects. While there is a good deal of ethnomusicology involving exhaustive inquiry into unfamiliar musical cultures through immersion and application of sophisticated theoretical models, some other work involving ethnographic approaches can consist of little more than rather slavish reiterations of the views of the subjects interviewed, with minimal wider contextual knowledge (this is explored in some detail in my ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Study of Western Art Music: Questions of Context, Realism, Evidence, Description and Analysis’ and ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography: Uncritical Musical Perspectives’, in Researching and Writing on Contemporary Creative Art and Artists in Theory and Practice, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)). Some of those who supplied statements in response to a 2016 debate on ethnomusicology have described an unhappy situation of an evangelical and censorious set of attitudes from some ethnomusicologists to most others, and a ‘rather flat, uncritical reporting of what the people of country X say about their music(al practices)’.

The field of popular music studies in the UK has many deep roots in sociology and cultural studies, not necessarily requiring musical expertise. The popular music academic Simon Frith once wrote disparagingly of listening and close engagement with music in favour of focus-group style investigations into what people think of it, an enthusiastic endorsement of what I have elsewhere called ‘musicology without ears’. But I do not believe a degree in Music should be essentially one in Market Research. A good deal of popular, film and video game music studies reflect the populist biases of many of their academic practitioners, and a wider wish to keep such study accessible to those with no specialist musical knowledge. There are of course many exceptions, for example in rigorous analytical work on popular music, but I have not seen evidence of these yet playing any central role within their sub-disciplines.

The peer-review system faces serious challenges in the face of an atomisation of sub-disciplines, so that many articles, chapters and books gain acceptance from reviewers and editors with a particular sub-disciplinary knowledge but not necessarily expertise in the subject of inquiry or wider methods which have been applied to it. Sweeping pronouncements on historical performance, on new music, on nineteenth-century aesthetics, to give a few areas about which I have some expertise, are not always subject to the right sort of scrutiny. As a consequence, all sorts of factual errors, half-truths or untruths, falsifiable or unsubstantiated claims, material lacking rigorous use of data or reasoning, or which cherry-picks data to support a priori assumptions, appear in print in respected journals or books by major publishers, and much of this type of material is reiterated by students and other academics, in the process becoming ideology. At worst, demonstrably unreliable or unresearched work is treated uncritically or even defensively by others with tribal loyalties to particular ideological approaches, especially when their advocates have institutional power.

I believe this is the result of a decline of critical thinking in academia, in favour of narrow political advocacy or simple group think. Has this not has always been the case to some extent? Perhaps, but I do believe a sufficiently vigorous intellectual culture has previously served to reveal and discredit clearly false and uninformed claims. But this process has itself been under some attack for a number of years, most prominently by the advocates of William Cheng’s book Just Vibrations (Ann Arbor: MI: University of Michigan Press), subject to a sustained critique by Peter Tregear in the pages of Musicology Australia and also in the RMA panel. Cheng dismisses the value of fact-checking, scrutiny of reasoning, and so on, in academic writing, as part of a ‘paranoid’ approach; he prefers to judge work by the extent to which he would claim it does social justice. What this amounts to is a simple surrender of scholarship to a narrow political agenda.

I am disappointed that our discipline has sunk so low that arguments like those of Cheng are taken seriously, but believe this is symptomatic of a wider Anglophone culture and politics in which music and other art forms are little valued. In Britain and America, which adopted industrialisation more fundamentally than their counterparts elsewhere, with associated utilitarian values, music and other arts have often been valued primarily to the extent they serve as pointers to other phenomena, or can be associated with a clear social function. The former constitutes a variety of artistic realism which ultimately denies the art. As the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton once wrote, ‘A poet who managed to make his or her words ‘become’ the fruit they describe would be a greengrocer’. Art does not simply provide a window onto reality, but adds to that reality.

The violinist Nicola Benedetti, however, has recently spoken about how:

It [Music] is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. It is feelings and thoughts, offerings of generosity, vulnerability and openness. It addresses us, communicates and passes invisible things from people creating sound to people receiving sound. It has the power to capture us, to make us feel many complex things. It can lift us high into optimism and accompany us during feelings of hurt and pain. The making of music can be described as healing, invigorating, exhausting and all-consuming. It brings millions together through the basic act of listening and thousands together through the act of making melody, rhythm and harmony in the practice and service of collective expression.

[During Benedetti’s work with schools and music organisations]: ‘I saw a huge number of inspiring teachers engaging their students with no sacrifice on quality, […]

I saw great teaching and playing, regardless of level. The more I looked, the more excellence, ingenuity, creativity, dedication, resilience and unbelievable steadfastness in both teacher and student I encountered. […]

But I also saw lacklustre music teachers and students, worn down by years of zero celebration of their work, continuous battles to hold onto the tiny resources they have, and feeling like they are pushing against a culture that only celebrates music sold like addictive candy.

(Nicola Benedetti, ‘Music teaching is vital to a child’s education’ (2019); another section from the talk is found in ‘Music is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. We need it in our lives’, The Guardian, 8 November 2019).

Benedetti’s ‘music sold like addictive candy’ is symptomatic of a wider educational culture which distrusts aesthetic judgement and as such is wary to try and develop wider taste among young people beyond what provides a form of instant gratification.

Two other quotes encapsulate issues at stake. The critic Charlotte Gardiner has written about the problems of de-professionalisation of music criticism and concomitant decline of technical engagement with music:

Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job.

Furthermore, technical knowledge is a vital ingredient towards painting the picture for a reader who wasn’t there. For instance, if you’re reading about the premiere of a cello piece drawing on Arabic musical traditions, what best helps you imagine it in your head: being told that it had you practically feeling the desert sand on your face and smelling the exotic spices, or that the composer used the quarter-tones and wavering notes heard across Middle-Eastern music, and mimicked the sound of the region’s traditional reed flute by getting the cellist to play airy harmonics on their lowest string? Basically, emotions and adjectives add important color, but the meat of the review will be the verbs.

Sticking with technical knowledge, when artists themselves have spent their lives training to the highest technical standards, they deserve critics who are similarly trained and who properly understand what they’re doing. I’m actually yet to meet an artist who wants to be reviewed by a non-professional. They want specifics and accuracy.

(Charlotte Gardiner, ‘Criticism Reviewed’takt1 (11 June 2019))

Then, the cellist and composer Franklin Cox made a comment on social media which I found remarkable and earlier blogged. He was prepared to express the unfashionable view that those teaching music have a responsibility towards tradition and history, because of the poor consequences of a musical culture in which musicians and scholars have no knowledge of these, rendering students only really able to create a type of musical or scholarly ‘fast food’ (resonating with the remarks of Benedetti and to some extent Gardiner):

The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.

It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.

There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.

These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.

 

Conclusion

Those who care about music – and about scholarship – should stand up for a proper curriculum, for rigorous teaching of core skills and methods. The current (2016) QAA Subject Benchmark Statement is very loose in its benchmark skills:

QAA1

QAA2These need to be strengthened to incorporate more clearly core requirements – in notation, aural skills, analysis, history, aesthetics – for any degree simply calling itself ‘Music’, a designator which at present as often quite vague. We should not be trying to teach too many types of music simultaneously, and be prepared to re-embrace specialisation and depth. Also, classical music does not deserve a more hostile treatment than other genres and idioms, as I feel it does receive in some environments.

Music (or any other art form) should be taught because it matters, because musical traditions are worth preserving, disseminating and developing for new generations, not because music is just some sociological phenomenon. If teachers and academics do not appear to be personally invested in music, what are the chances that students will feel inspired to study it? To be able to engage with the myriad range of detail, meanings and context of music means far more than simply being able to parrot that X or Y group in society negotiate their identity by listening to genre A or B. We need curricula and approaches to teaching which value music and other arts for their own sake.