Musicological Observations 10: Practitioners and Scholars – Advocacy vs Criticism?

There was an interesting recent social media thread from Cambridge Professor of Music Marina Frolova-Walker, following reading of some unhappy Twitter exchanges between musicians and musicologists. I am not exactly sure which these were, but there had recently been a particularly angry set of responses to conductor Kenneth Woods after his suggestion that some young musicians were not getting the type of training and experience they need when the National Youth Orchestra spent half a programme on some contemporary works – which I have not personally heard – which he described as ‘tenth rate’ and not featuring much of consequence for the players to do. Some may not realise that any type of value judgement is rejected and even despised in some musicological quarters, and so many responses were to pile on Woods for daring to indulge in such a thing, which is after all ‘subjective’ (as if a lot of what musicologists say and write does not also fall into this category).

Anyhow, Frolova-Walker (who I am citing with permission) suggested wryly (and perhaps only half-seriously) that musical practitioners and music academics might to best to keep apart from each other, since they inhabit such different worlds, value systems, use different vocabularies, etc. This provoked considerable debate, some including myself reluctant to throw in the towel when it comes to fruitful interactions between practitioners and scholars. One of Frolova-Walker’s conclusions was ‘performing is about advocacy, musicology is about criticism’. From a position of high respect, I want to consider this dichotomy further. For the purposes of this post, I define ‘scholars’ as those who produce generally written outputs in the standard forms (article, book chapter, monograph) for academic publishers; ‘practitioners’ as those whose work is primarily in the form of practice – performance, composition, artistic installation, recording, video, etc.

This issue, which I have touched upon in earlier blog posts (see here, here, here and here) is naturally very close to my own heart, as I straddle the worlds of performance and scholarship. Sometimes I like to think this makes me able to bridge the two worlds, but equally often I can feel estranged from and sceptical about both. Frolova-Walker’s point about different vocabularies employed by practitioners and scholars is highly familiar; even such basic terms as ‘the canon’ or ‘Western art music’ are found much more frequently amongst scholars than practitioners, in my experience, whilst few scholars are happy with ideas of ‘musicality’ and the like.

I have recently published two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need for universities to facilitate higher academic status and progression for a range of practitioners in the performing arts (see here and here), questioning in particular the use (in the UK) of the Research Excellence Framework as the primary measure of the value of their work. This short article is in a sense a rejoinder to those from a different perspective which realises the limits of the field of practitioners, after advocating for their academic integration.

The concepts of ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’ can of course have a variety of meanings or emphases. ‘Advocacy’ can mean a basically supportive though not uncritical view of some phenomenon (such as some artistic work), but can also mean either a rigid or even a defensive attitude towards such a thing, which brooks for no dissenting views, and thus can be dismissive of such views, or even try to pathologise those who hold them. ‘Criticism’ can imply something a primarily pejorative view of a phenomenon (in that sense, the direct opposite of advocacy), but here I believe it was intended more in the manner of ‘critique’, relating to a more dispassionate evaluation of a phenomenon (in the case of musicology, this could be an aesthetic critique, an ideology critique, or other type of commentary or analysis of musical phenomena undertaken with that degree of critical distance that is generally believed to be the best approach for a scholar).

Can or should musicologists be advocates? The former Regius Professor of Music at Cambridge, Nicholas Cook, thinks they should not. In a 2003 article (‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), pp. 249-261), examines a range of types of advocacy found in musical writing – for individual composers and performers (especially in biographical writing), for rock musicians by demonstrating various qualities within their work, advocacy for new music, arguing for its merits in the face of marginalisation, for early music, and political advocacy for the writers’ informants in ethnomusicology. Cook is especially scathing on forms of advocacy for new music which positively valorise its alleged resistance to consumer culture (breaching Godwin’s Law in a hyperbolic passage in which he compares the view of one protagonist expressing such a position, Anne Boissière to a tradition of thought which ‘fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”‘ (p. 257)). But in terms of advocacy based on value judgement, after surveying in particular the relationship between this and analysis at the hands of the likes of Heinrich Schenker, Carl Dahlhaus and Rudolph Réti, Cook delivers the following pronouncement, ending in a formulation reminiscent of Leopold Ranke’s view of the job of history:

It seems to me that the idea of the musical academy acting as some kind of quality control, with musicologists or theorists issuing admission tickets to a canonic hall of fame, is way past its sell-by date, and that the prerequisite for a more open-minded approach to musical culture than musicology has traditionally had is a more modest intellectual ambition: to register, to describe, to establish the facts as they are. (p. 259)

While taking Cook’s views seriously (though not his outrageous slur on Boissière), I disagree with this rejection of value judgement and advocacy in general, reject his caricature of ‘musicologists and theorists’, and find it hard to imagine such a view coming from a practising musician, who would have a different personal relationship with the music in question. (I also do not believe there is such a thing as ‘establishing the facts as they are’, somehow free from the interpretive lens of the academic who is doing that (though this is no sense to take a post-modern ‘anything goes’ attitude with respect to relatively objective factual data), but that is a different matter.)

It is hard to see why one would wish to spend a very considerable amount of time or energy on studying music if one did not care about it, or at least find it fascinating. The exceptions might be if one has a passion for history, sociology or another discipline distinct from music, so one studies the music to learn more about the wider history, the society from which it comes, and so on. I have spent some fair amount of time considering what I consider minor and now-forgotten works in various traditions, not in order to uncover ‘lost masterpieces’ (though it is of course a bonus if one finds something really striking in such research), but rather to gain a wider understanding of the context in which other music which I do value was developed, or to comprehend better developments in style, genre, and so on.

Nonetheless, there are basic principles developed in the humanities which I believe continue to be as essential as ever in musical scholarship: maintaining a key awareness of the range of data available and its limitations, not ignoring inconvenient findings if they might interfere with a priori theories or conclusions, familiarising oneself and engaging critically with existing secondary literature and recognising the relationship of one’s own work to what has already been achieved, understanding that the assumptions, tastes, priorities and values of other times and places may be quite different from one’s own, and most importantly here, maintaining a degree of healthy critical distance from one’s subject, so as to be able to assess and interpret it in a more balanced manner, while avoiding the types of highly subjective judgements which rely essentially on whim rather than more substantive and detailed appraisal. For music, I would add the avoidance of pronouncing on music without having heard it (or, where music has been published but either never-yet performed, or no recording exists, studying the score as the next-best thing). Furthermore, in general I believe it is better if scholars are at least guarded before making blatant political pronouncements which assume the reader share their own particular ideological convictions. If the arguments and interpretations are made in a rigorous and well-substantiated fashion, the reader is perfectly capable of drawing their own political conclusions.

I do enjoy immensely reading scholarly work on music (of all types and traditions) by those who clearly have a passion for it, including on occasions when I might not share the same aesthetic view as the writer, at least initially. I may hear some music which makes an impression, but not always be clear to myself why this is the case, and am always interested to know more of its workings in order to understand more about my own reaction. Amongst large bodies of work, such as Marenzio’s Madrigals, Haydn’s Symphonies, Schubert’s songs or Miles Davis’s albums, I am interested in reading those intimately familiar with such bodies of work and their arguments for why some parts of these oeuvres might be especially distinctive. I (and I am sure a great many others) am perfectly capable of still having my own view after such reading, and of course there has always been lively debate amongst different people about aesthetic matters; Cook’s view of such advocacy as a type of hegemony appears to assume that readers will inevitably have an opinion imposed on them, and presents them as essentially passive. By contrast, as I have argued in a review-article on his book Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), I can find Cook’s stand-offish approach clinical and alienating, objectifying and removing the life from music by treating it like a laboratory specimen. It is more ‘open-minded’ to allow for advocacy, at least of certain types, than to attempt to have it banished from scholarly writing, as Cook seems to wish.

However, to give the range of Cook’s arguments the proper consideration they deserve, some of the more questionable types of advocacy within musicology he identifies do certainly exist. The line dividing some supposedly scholarly writing on popular music from that which might appear in a ‘fanzine’ is not always carefully drawn (not least because popular music scholars are not so often well-versed in the types of more detailed perspectives on aesthetics which can be found elsewhere, including in some popular music journalism or other non-academic writing). In and outside of ethnomusicology, ‘activist’ writing can be an unedifying spectacle, eschewing attempts at scholarly balance and critical distance in favour of bald assertion of political points, to an extent that I would question whether some such work really qualifies as scholarship. And, as I said earlier, there are forms of advocacy that rest either on the simple fact that such a view is commonplace, and has been over an extended period, or the assumption that there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees (an approach which unfortunately permeates such composer monographs as that of Lois Fitch on Brian Ferneyhough, of Pirkko Moisala on Kaija Saariaho).

The works of Fitch and Moisala may be amongst the most egregious examples, but they epitomise a wider phenomenon within writing on new music, one of the areas mentioned by Cook (about which I have been writing much for publications recently, and on which I am preparing a longer blog post). A very large number of practitioners working in research positions in UK academic departments are involved with new music, including myself. In this context I have found the dichotomy between advocacy and criticism to be most acute.

While a few practitioners also produce written and other outputs (as I do, some of which have no direct or obvious link to my own practice), others are focused primarily or exclusively on their practice. More to the point, they frequently also operate in external non-academic arenas, sites dominated by different values, attitudes and behaviours than one might find in academia. Practitioners need to network with those with the power to grant them commissions, performances, exhibits, etc., have to advocate strongly for their own work and sometimes that of others, and often cannot risk expressing views or perspectives which might give grounds for any scepticism about their work, or which those with whom they network might not favour. I have certainly found this when attempting to engage some in the new music world with issues of the development of that world in the aftermath of fascism, or the more specific example of the patronage of new music by the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung, bearing in mind that the Siemens family fortune rests at least in part on their having run slave labour camps at Auschwitz, then spent 30 years trying to fight against compensation claims from survivors – not what those who have received or wish to receive a major grant from this organisation, or their acolytes, wish to hear. Often they are part of wider networks of practitioners whose collective reputation impacts upon their own individual one, and so need to be staunch advocates for these networks.

Amongst practitioners operating in more highly commercialised environments (compared to that of new music, which can at least occasionally entertain some more critical discourse within its ranks), in which total loyalty to an employer, an outfit, a brand, etc., can be utterly essential, and anything else might have one ostracised, these issues may be even more acute. Some of those working in academic departments who are also pursuing commercial work can be mystified when they encounter the type of critical discourse pursued by musicologists, uncomprehending of why one would engage in the type of thinking which may be at cross-purposes with what might help one gain work. Similarly, study of the music industries/business can take radically different forms depending upon whether one is seeking to understand their workings, operations, priorities in the manner of a scholar, or trying to look at (or teach others) how best to succeed in them. Nonetheless, there are important figures with commercial connections who can move between such discourses.

In many institutions and conferences, I have sat through a range of events billed as research presentations by composers, improvisers, sound artists, other performers, and so on, which amount essentially to a form of self-advocacy or even self-promotion, somewhat akin to ‘artists’ statements’. The practitioner will describe what they do, why they chose to embark on a particular project, how they set about this, often with some liberal number of references both to other admired artists to whose work this practitioner links their own, and to certain intellectual figures (Gilles Deleuze or Bruno Latour are often a safe bet, and increasingly a few writings by anthropologist Tim Ingold, though rarely his highly critical articles on ethnography or soundscape), as well as to key concepts from philosophy and other fields (not always presented in a manner which accords with their recognised and established meanings) as part of the process of situating one’s work within a research culture. This is distinct from autoethnography (which, for reasons too intricate to go into here, but which I have argued elsewhere, I do think is often quite deeply linked to the framing of practice-as-research), which is not simply autobiography, but at best entails a critical perspective on the self and the practice in which they are engaged. Occasionally one will encounter a bit of critical self-reflection in such research presentations, entertaining the possibility that it entailed failures as well as successes, but I have found this increasingly rare, as if the practitioners are loath to engage in something which might make themselves seem vulnerable.

Of course there is an important place for this type of self-advocacy, but the values and attitudes it embodies appear at cross-purposes with those of more disinterested humanities scholarship. For this reason, situating practice-research (for this type of presentation invariably relates to such a thing) within the humanities may be a category error.

It would also be unfair to associate this type of advocacy and lack of critique exclusively with practitioners. I have certainly encountered it frequently in some presentations on popular music (in the manner mentioned above), certain types of ethnography dominated by simple representation of the views of the informants, with little critical interpretation (to such an extent that some such work can appear hagiographic, as I have argued in a variety of cases – see my two essays on ethnography in this volume), or those soundscape studies which consist primarily of listing a range of sounds to be found in a particular location, whereby the simple fact of the sounds being variegated appears to suffice for interpretation.

Some of those can rub off on those working in academia who are not themselves practitioners, but write about contemporary work (this was a recurrent subject in the 2017 conference at the University of Surrey on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’, where it was fascinating to find how many scholars working on different artistic disciplines had experienced the same issues, conflicts of interests, and so on). Many will share faculties with practitioners, sometimes working in fields related to those about which they write. In my experience, such practitioners, especially those who believe their fields to be beleaguered or little recognised in a wider social context (as with many in new music, not least electroacoustic music), can respond very negatively and even in a hostile fashion that the sort of critical writing which might do something other than simply flatter the type of work they do. While this can only be conjecture/speculation, I do believe that this type of ‘peer pressure’ often has an impact on scholars, leading them to avoid more difficult critical questions, aesthetic or otherwise. But this compromises the depth and integrity of their research, and in my view has led to scholarly writing on new music remaining a very uneven field compared to those dealing with other areas, where will not interact almost on a daily basis with individuals deeply invested in such fields.

This is the type of major conflict which can result from the integration of practitioners in academia without some grounding in wider critical scholarly discourse and the values of the humanities. It can also be damaging for teaching, if one might otherwise not necessarily deem the work of a practitioner colleague itself sufficiently significant to be included in a survey of a field of work, or might wish to unpack some of the aesthetic and ideological assumptions behind their work or those of the circles with which they are involved. Here we do see advocacy and critique drastically at cross-purposes.

But I do not believe this has to be the case, so long as there is recognition the distinct qualities and types of expertise of scholars and practitioners, neither conflates these nor tries to establish a rigid hierarchy, and respects the independent perspectives and academic freedom of each. With teaching, this can be more complicated; here I would aver that on balance scholars might hold back from engaging in practical teaching, and practitioners from scholarly teaching, if they do not have considerable experience of their own in such fields. Teleological views of music history which just happen to feature the work of the composer teaching them as the telos, academic study of performance trends and cultures which are centered around the work of the performer teaching them, or abstract and dry directives on how music should be played on the basis of academic knowledge, by those who have little experience themselves of the process of performing music, are not often good practice in these respective areas.

Music-making can exist without musicology (indeed has done or continues to do so in various times and places), but musicology not engaged with music or music-making which still remains a living concern at least to some (which in no sense means any prioritisation of contemporary work), or has the potential to be so, will invite, not unreasonably, charges of ‘ivory-towerism’. Academics talking solely to each other is not always encouraging, nor an insistence that their own work is only valorised by those other academics (usually within the same sub-discipline, and often sharing a range of ideological assumptions) who by virtue of their very position can never really be more disinterested judges of the wider societal or other value of such work.

It is in my view essential that academic musicians are engaged with music and music-making existing outside of academia, without in the process sacrificing their scholarly independence. This is not about adopting advocacy wholesale, but recognising a world in which this does play a very major role, developing perspectives on this which are not blindly dismissive, but also demanding that practitioners equally recognise that academics may not share the assumptions appertaining to the particular (and sometimes small) cultural or social milieu inhabited by some practitioners.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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