For my 50th birthday this year, I was absolutely delighted to receive on the day a volume containing seventeen short piano pieces written for the occasion, and subsequently four other pieces for piano and one for electronics. I am performing all of these, together with a new piece of my own and three lesser-known early twentieth-century works, on Friday 20 April (tomorrow) at the Performance Space, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB. The concert will be live-streamed complete, and can be viewed from the FB page for City University Concerts from 18:30. The concert is free, but to reserve a place, please see this page.
I was incredibly touched by the collection, assembled by US composer Evan Johnson, who wrote that this collection was ‘in recognition of a career built around the persistent championing of young or unduly ignored composers, and of difficult or otherwise unreasonable music: the sort often thankless effort that can indelibly shape a nascent compositional career, build decades-long collaborations, and begin to change the face of a repertoire’.
The full programme is as follows, and below are a selection of excerpts from the scores (and in a few cases, complete piece). Earlier versions of the programme also included Roger Sessions First Piano Sonata, but for reasons of programme length I have decided to postpone this work to a later date. Further information about my own piece auseinandergerissene Hälften, from which I will post a snippet later, are given at the bottom of this page.
Arthur Lourié, Deux poèmes op. 8 (1912)
Stefan Wolpe, Sonata for piano. Op. 1 (1925)
Frederic Mompou, Charmes (1920-21)
Christopher Fox, Fifty Points of Light (2017) (WP)
James Dillon, amethyst (2018) (WP)
Roddy Hawkins, Down-Time for Ian (2007, rev. 2017) (WP)
Lauren Redhead, nothing really changes (2017) (WP)
Mic Spencer, A Maze I(a)n (S)pace (Space [G]race) (2017) (WP)
Michael Finnissy, Were we born yesterday? (2017) (WP)
Sadie Harrison, gentle (2017) (WP)
Ben Smith, burnt (2017-18) (WP)
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Desperatio (piano piece no. 5) (2017-18) (WP)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018) (WP)
Paul Obermayer, Fra (electronic music) (2018) (WP)
William A.P.M., Fragment aus einem gebrochenen Geist „kaum intakt“ (2018) (WP)
Walter Zimmermann, Stars for Ian (2017) (WP)
Ian Pace, auseinandergerissene Hälften (2018) (WP)
Jesse Ronneau, AGHB (2017) (WP)
Eleri Angharad Pound, pbh (2017-18) (WP)
Morgan Hayes, Comparison (2018) (WP of revised version)
Marc Yeats, exordium (2017) (WP)
Alannah Marie Halay, Progress always comes late (2017) (WP)
Nigel McBride, wide stare stared itself (2017-18) (WP)
Alistair Zaldua, Sylph Figures for Ian Pace (2017) (WP)
Wieland Hoban, Whiptail (2017) (WP)
Evan Johnson (2017) qu’en joye on vous demaine (2017) (WP)
Christopher Fox, Fifty Points of Light (2017)
Roddy Hawkins, Down-Time for Ian (2007, rev. 2017)
Lauren Redhead, nothing really changes (2017)
Mic Spencer, A Maze I(a)n (S)pace (Space [G]race) (2017)
Michael Finnissy, Were we born yesterday? (2017)
Sadie Harrison, gentle (2017)
Ben Smith, burnt (2017-18)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018)
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Desperatio (Piano Piece No. 5) (2017-18)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018)
William A.P.M., Fragment aus einem gebrochenen Geist „kaum intakt“ (2018)
Walter Zimmermann, Stars for Ian (2017)
Ian Pace, from auseinandergerissene Hälften (2018)
Eleri Angharad Pound, pbh (2017-18)
Morgan Hayes, Comparison (2018)
Marc Yeats, exordium (2017)
Alannah Marie Halay, Progress always comes late (2017)
Nigel McBride, wide stare stared itself (2017-18)
Alistair Zaldua, Sylph-Figures for Ian Pace (2017)
Wieland Hoban, Whiptail (2017)
Evan Johnson, qu’en joye on vous demaine (2017)
My own auseinandergerissene Hälften is a short work which nonetheless could be considered ‘mixed media’, to use the fashionable term, as it will consist playing as well as spoken and written text, and a small amount of theatre. The title comes from the notorious letter written by Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin on 18 March 1936, in the context of discussion of the latter’s ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, first written the previous year. Adorno wrote to Benjamin on the subject of the dialectics of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture:
‘Beide tragen die Wundmale des Kapitalismus, beide enthalten Elemente der Veränderung (freilich nie und nimmer das Mittlere zwischen Schönberg und dem amerikanischen Film); beide sind die auseinandergerissenen Hälften der ganzen Freiheit, die doch aus ihnen nicht sich zusammenaddieren läßt’ (‘Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change (but never, of course, simply as a middle-term between Schönberg and the American film). Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up’).
My starting point for this piece is both this conception of the ‘torn halves’ of cultural freedom, but also my own ‘torn halves’, as both a pianist and a musicologist intensely engaged with the conflicting demands of both things – how one maintains scholarly distance and independence whilst still operating in an external musical world with its own pressures to conform, flatter, etc., how the criteria for deeming creative practice valuable ‘research’ might be quite different from other criteria of value, how my own interests as a performer are not synonymous with priorities as a historical musicologist – and indeed the music I choose to teach does not necessarily simply reflect my personal preferences. In the latter context, I return to the high/low culture question as it has informed my teaching of a former core module in music history, perhaps the most important teaching I have done. This attempted to navigate fairly between this ‘torn halves’ and their continuous co-presence, sometimes interacting, sometimes antagonistic, in Western musical history since 1848.
For this piece I have drawn upon the materials I used there to create a series of interconnected musical vignettes, each of which draw upon different species of music from a series of dates (including 1936, the date of Adorno’s letter to Benjamin). All of these are heavily modified, viewed from a contemporary perspective, but I attempt, inevitably unsuccessfully, to make them ‘add up’. The music is accompanied by slides with disembodied fragments of actual lecture slides, together with passages from radical modernist texts from the periods in question, material placed here on social media (a low culture of today in contrast to the supposedly elevated world of the lecture).
I am writing this piece during what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based academics over and above the issue of pensions: to do with casualisation and marketisation in academia, the growth of bloated layers of management and dehumanising treatment of academics, the precarious conditions facing early career researchers (ECRs), widespread bullying, and systemic discrimination against female academics, those from minority groups, and so on. Not least amongst the frustrations are those about various metrics employed to judge ‘performance’ relating to the government Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)), and new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
In this blog post, I will outline a short history of the RAE/REF with relevant links, and collect together recent comments about it and suggestions for alternatives. For most of this (except a few places), I will attempt to outline the arguments of others (including my own expressed online) on either side, rather than try to unpack and critique them – this blog is undoubtedly a ‘survey text’ in the sense often dismissed by REF assessors, though hopefully should serve some useful purpose nonetheless! In an academic spirit, I would welcome all comments, however critical (so long as focused on the issues and not personalised towards any people mentioned), and will happily correct anything found to be erroneous, add extra links, and so on. Anyone wishing to make suggestions in these respects should either post in the comments section below, or e-mail me at the addy given at the top of this page.
One of the most important pieces of sustained writing on the RAE and REF is Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (London: Sage, 2014), a highly critical book which carefully presents a large amount of information on its history. I draw extensively upon this for this blog, as well as the articles by Bence and Oppenheim, and Jump on the Evolution of the REF, listed below. A range of primary documents can be found online, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its counterparts in the rest of the UK, on RAE 1992, RAE 1996, RAE 2001, RAE 2008, and REF 2014. These are essential resources for all scholars investigating the subject, though obviously represent the perspectives of those administering the system. Equally important are Lord Nicholas Stern’s 2016 review of the REF, and the 2017 key policy decisions on REF 2021, made following consultation.
There are many other journalistic and scholarly articles on the REF and its predecessors. Amongst the most important of these would be the following:
Michael Shattock, UGC and the Management of British Universities (Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 1994).
Valerie Bence and Charles Oppenheim, ‘The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise: Publications, Performance and Perceptions‘, Journal of Educational Administration and History 37/2 (2005), pp. 137-55.
Donald Gillies, ‘How Should Research be Organised? An Alternative to the UK Research Assessment Exercise’, in Leemon McHenry, Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell (Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, 2009), pp. 147-68.
Zoë Corbyn, ‘It’s evolution, not revolution for REF’, THES, 24 September 2009.
John F. Allen, ‘Opinion: Research and how to promote it in a university’, Future Medicinal Chemistry 2/1 (2009).
Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney, ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute, 25 March 2010.
Ben R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: are we creating a Frankenstein monster?’, Research Evaluation 20/3 (1 September 2011), pp. 247-54.
Dorothy Bishop, ‘An Alternative to REF 2014?’, Bishopblog, 26 January 2013.
University and College Union, ‘The Research Excellence Framework (REF): UCU Survey Report’, October 2013.
Paul Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 17 October 2013.
Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control‘, The Guardian, 4 November 2013.
John F. Allen, ‘Research Assessment and REF’ (2014).
Teresa Penfield, Matthew J. Baker, Rosa Scoble, Michael C. Wykes, ‘Assessment, evaluations, and definitions of research impact: A review’, Research Evaluation 23/1 (January 2014), pp. 21-32.
Derek Sayer, ‘Problems with Peer Review for the REF‘, Council for the Defence of British Universities, 21 November 2014.
‘Telling stories’, Nature 518/7538 (11 February 2015).
Paul Jump, ‘Can the research excellence framework run on metrics?’, THES, 18 June 2015.
HEFCE (chaired James Wilsdon), ‘The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management’, 8 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘The metric tide: an agenda for responsible indicators in research’, The Guardian, 9 July 2015.
Paul Jump, ‘Is the REF worth a quarter of a billion pounds?’, THES, 14 July 2015.
J.R. Shackleton and Philip Booth, ‘Abolishing the Research Excellence Framework’, Institute of Economic Affairs, 23 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘In defence of the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Alex Jones and Andrew Kemp, ‘Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 17 October 2016.
James C. Conroy and Richard Smith, ‘The Ethics of Research Excellence’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 51/4 (2017), pp. 693-708.
A Short History of the RAE and REF to 2014
There were six rounds of the RAE, in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the gaps between each becoming progressively larger. The REF has run just once to date, in 2014, with the next round scheduled for 2021.
The first ‘research selectivity exercise’ in 1986 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC), an organisation created after the end of World War One. As noted by Bence and Oppenheim, there was a longer history of the development of Performance Indicators (PIs) in higher education through various metrics, but definitions were unclear, so this exercise was viewed as an attempt to convert other indicators into a clear PI, which it was thought would add efficiency and accountability to university funding through a competitive process, in line with other aspects of the Thatcher government’s policies.
The 1986 exercise involved just the traditional universities, and only influenced a small proportion of funding. It consisted of a four-part questionnaire on research income, expenditure, planning priorities and output. Assessment was divided between roughly 70 subject categories known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). There were wider criticisms of the 1986 exercise, to do with differing standards between subjects, unclear assessment criteria, and lack of transparency of assessors and an appeals mechanism. As such it was much criticised by academics, and reformed for 1989, in which ‘informed peer review’ was introduced for assessment, following wide consultation. This year, a grading system from 1 to 5 was also introduced based upon national and international criteria, 152 UoAs were used, sub-committees were expanded, and details of two publications per member of staff submitted were required, as well as information on research students, external income and plans. It was used to allocate a greater proportion of funding. There were still many criticism, to do with the system favouring large departments, a lack of clear verification of accuracy of submissions, and late planning causing difficulties for institutions preparing their submission strategies.
Other important changes affecting higher education took place during this early period of the RAE, including the abolition of tenure by the Thatcher government in 1988, then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act , which abolished the university/polytechnic distinction, so that the latter institutions could apply for university status, and then be included in the RAE. The Act also established four funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to replace the UGC, and made research funding allocated entirely on a selective basis, replacing previous systems of funding based upon student numbers. There had been no formula funding for research in polytechnics, so the new system radically altered the balance, allowing them to compete openly with the more traditional institutions for such funding.
RAE 1992 then brought major new changes, with institutions able to select which ‘research active’ staff to put forward, a longer timescale allowed for research in the arts and humanities, improved auditing processes, and reduced assessment down to 72 UoAs. 192 institutions participated, covering over 43,000 full-time equivalent researchers. Practically all university research funding from this point was determined by the exercise, based upon a quality rating, the number of research-active staff, amount of research income and some consideration of future planned activity. Departments which were given an assessment of 1 or 2 would not receive any funding. The result was that the older universities received 91% of the available funding, new (post-1992) universities 7% and colleges 2%. 67% of departments were ranked 1, 2 or 3. This led to objections that the system was biased in favour of the older and larger universities, which had supplied many of the panelists for certain UoAs. Some results were challenged in court, and a judge noted a need for greater transparency.
Changes for RAE 1996 involved the submission of four publications for selected research-active staff, and stiffer requirements on a cut-off date for outputs being placed in the public domain. Rating 3 was divided into 3a and 3b, and an extra 5* rating introduced, while each panel was required to make clear their criteria for assessment. 60 subject panels, with chairs appointed by the funding councils on the basis of recommendations of previous chairs, and other panel members selected on the basis of nominations from various learned societies or subject associations. These considered 69 UoAs on the basis of peer review. This was also the first RAE which allowed performance submissions for musicians (see below), which was encompassed in the following definition of ‘research’ provided by the funding councils:
‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship*; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials, components and processes, eg for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques.
* Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE.
One of the major problems encountered had to do with academics moving to other institutions just before the final date, so those institutions could submit their outputs, as well as early concerns about the power invested in managers to declare members of staff ‘research-inactive’ and not submit them. Furthermore, it was found that outcomes were biased towards departments with members on assessment panels. Once again, no funding was granted to departments graded 1 or 2. This time, however, 43% of departments were ranked 4, 5 or 5*, a rise of 10% since 1992.
The changes to RAE 2001 involved panels consulting a number of non-UK-based experts in their field to review work which had already been assigned top grades. Sub-panels were created, but there were also five large ‘Umbrella Groups’ created, in Medical and Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences; Area Studies and Languages; and Humanities and Arts. Some new measures also acknowledged early career researchers, some on career breaks, and other circumstances, and a new category was created for staff who had transferred, who could be submitted by both institutions, though only the later one would receive the resulting research funding. Expanded feedback was provided, and electronic publications permitted, though different UoAs employed different criteria in terms of the significance of place of publication and peer-review. 65% of departments were now ranked 4, 5 or 5*. 55% of staff in 5 and 5* departments were submitted, compared to 23% in 1992 and 31% in 1996.
The Roberts review of 2002 expressed concern about how the whole exercise could be undermined by ‘game-playing’, as institutions were learning to do. Furthermore, there were concerns about the administration costs of the system. A process was set in place, announced by Gordon Brown, to replace the existing RAE (after the 2008 exercise) with a simpler metrics-based system. As detailed at length in Sayer, despite major consultations involving many important parts of the UK academic establishment, an initial report and proposals of this type were quickly changed to a two-track model of metrics and peer review, then the whole plan was almost completely abandoned.
RAE 2008 itself had fewer major changes. Amongst these were a renewed set of assessment criteria, especially as affected applied, practice-based and interdisciplinary research, a two-tiered panel structure, with sub-panels undertaking the detailed assessment and making recommendations to main panels, who made broader decisions and produced a ‘quality profile’ for a department, in place of the older seven-point system. Individual outputs were now given one of five possible rankings:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment
By 2008-9 (before the results of RAE 2008 took effect) about 90% of funding went to just 38 universities, but from 2009 48 institutions shared this amount (after 15. As Adams and Gurney have noted, the weighting of the 2008 exercise meant that the difference between obtaining 2* and 3* was greater than that between 3* and 4*, or between the previously 4 to 5 or 5 to 5* rankings. 54% of 2008 submissions were ranked either 3* or 4*, 87% 2*, 3* or 4*.
The plans for post-2008 exercises were finally published in September 2009 by HEFCE, indicating a new name, the REF, but otherwise the system was much less different to those which preceded it than had been assumed. Now the ranking was to be based upon three components: ”output quality’ at 60%, ‘impact’ at 25%, and ‘environment’ at 15% (later revised to 65%, 20% and 15% respectively). Outputs were to be assessed as before, though for sciences, citation data would informed various panels. ‘Environment’ was assessed on the basis of research income, number of postgraduate research students, and completion rates. But the most significant new measure was ‘impact’, reflecting the desires of the then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for universities to become more responsive to students, viewed as customers, and industry, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Each department was to submit a general statement on ‘impact’ as a whole, and could submit between 2 and 7 impact ‘case studies’, depending upon the number of research-active staff submitted to the REF. This was a huge shift, and restricted to impact which could be observed during the cycle between exercises, and derived from research produced when the academic in question was already at the submitting institution.
Other changes including a major shift in the number of UoAs and sub-panels to 30, and just four main assessment panels. One single sub-panel would assess outputs, environment and impact. However, the same number of experts were involved as before.
Since REF 2014, the Stern Report has informed significant changes to the system, in part intended to avoid the potential for gaming. Following further consultations, it has been announced that a minimum of one output and a maximum of seven from each member of a department will be submitted. Further measures have been introduced to ensure that most short form text-based submissions must be ‘Open Access’, available freely to all, which generates its own set of issues. Further plans for REF 2028 indicate that this will also apply to long form submissions such as monographs; the situation for creative practice outputs currently appears not to have changed, but this situation may be modified. HEFCE was abolished at the end of March 2018, and replaced in England by the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the actions of which remain to be seen.
The RAE and REF have caused huge amounts of resentment and anger amongst academics, and produced sweeping changes to the nature of academic work as a whole. Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first RAE (interviewed in Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’) argued against many of the subsequent developments, and with every reform to the system, institutions would put greater pressure on individuals, especially those in junior positions, leading to some of the awful cases of chronic stress, mental illness and bullying which have been detailed recently on social media.. Many report that REF submissions constitute the only research valued by their institutions. A Head of Department (HoD) or other REF supervisor who achieved a high REF scoring could expect to win favour and further promotion from their management; in practice, this often meant cajoling and bullying of already-overworked staff with threats and intimidation about whether they would maintain their job, and and little favour of support shown to those who might not produce the right number of 3* or 4* outputs. Those dealing with mental health issues, trying to balance impossible teaching and administrative workloads (all fuelled by the Mandelsonian idea of the student-as-consumer) and research demands with major care commitments for children or the elderly, were often driven to breakdowns or to quit academia; some cases of this are documented below. Academics ceased, in the eyes of many managements, to be human beings towards whom they had a duty of care as their employers, but merely as potential cash cows, to be dispensed with if there was any pause in this function.
Gaming of the system continued in many forms from RAE 1992 onwards. Many institutions would award 0.2 FTE or short-term contracts in the run-up to the RAE/REF, so that institutions could profit from particular individuals’ outputs (not least ECRs who might have a monograph and were desperate for any employment record on their CVs). All of this could mean that rankings were unrepresentative of the research carried on by the majority of a department’s full-time, permanent staff. Research projects taking more than 6-7 years were greatly disadvantaged, or at least those embarked on them would still have to produce four other world-leading outputs in during a RAE/REF cycle, in many institutions, sometimes in order to retain a position at all. Callous HoDs or other REF managers could dismiss some work which had occupied academics for years (whilst maintaining hefty teaching and administration workloads) as merely 2*, on the grounds of its being ‘journalistic’ (often it was relatively readable), a ‘survey text’ (if it drew upon a wide range of existing scholarly literature), or the like, often with crushing impacts on the academics concerned.
The period of the RAE’s history saw other sweeping changes to Higher Education in the UK. Between 1963 and 1970, numbers of young people attending university had doubled following the Robbins Report, but then remained essentially static until the late 1980s, when over a decade numbers rose from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997 (see Ann-Marie Bathmaker, ‘The Expansion of Higher Education: Consideration of Control, Funding and Quality’, in Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton, Education Studies: Essential Issues (London: Sage, 2003), pp. 169-89). Since then numbers participating have continually risen, to a peak of 49% in 2011. This was an unrepresentative year, the last before the introduction of trebled tuition fees, which were a disincentive for students to take a gap year, followed by a concomitant dip of 6% (to 43%) in 2012, then a further rise to 49% in 2015, exceeding the pre-2011 peak of 46%, thus confounding (at least to date) those who predicted that increased fees would lead to decreased participation.
Sayer points out that there are few equivalents for the REF elsewhere in the world and none in North American or Europe. Furthermore, few have sought to emulate this system. Some of those cited below argue that most of the known alternatives (including those which preceded the introduction of the RAE) may be worse, others (including myself) cannot accept that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. I would further maintain that the human cost of the REF should not only be unacceptable, but illegal, and that only a zero tolerance policy, with criminal charges if necessary (even for the most senior members of management) could stop this. Dignity at work is as important in this context as any other, and little of that is currently on display in UK academia.
Creative Practice and Non-Text-Based Outputs
An issue of especial relevance to those engaged in performing-arts-based academic disciplines such as music, theatre, or dance (and in many cases also creative or other forms of writing, the visual arts, and so on) is that of outputs submitted to the REF in the form of creative practice. By this I mean specifically outputs in the form of practice (i.e. practice-as-research), as opposed to those simply documenting or critically analysing one’s own or others’ practice. I have previously blogged extensively on this subject, following the publication of a widely read article by John Croft (‘Composition is not Research’, TEMPO 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and replies from me (‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, TEMPO 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70 ) and from Camden Reeves (‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59), and a subsequent public debate on the subject. Amongst the issues raised, some of them familiar from wider debates on practice-as-research which are referenced in my own article, were whether creative practice on its own can stand as research without requiring additional written documentation (not least the now-familiar 300-word statements which can be regarded as deemed essential by the REF, as I argue in response to a claim made by Miguel Mera in that debate), whether creative work which most resembles ‘science’ is regarded as more ‘research-like’, an implicit claim unpacked by Reeves (as one colleague put it to me, ‘if it has wires going into it, it’s more like research’), with all this implies in terms of (gendered) views of STEM versus the humanities, or whether certain types of output are privileged for being more ‘text-like’ than others (scores versus recordings, for example) and thus some practitioners are at an advantage compared to others (here I give some figures on the relative proportions of composers and performers in different types of music departments). Attitudes to the latter vary hugely between institutions: at least one Russell Group department was happy to award a chair to a performer whose research output consists almost exclusively of performances and recordings, mostly as part of groups, while at others, especially those without strong representation of the performing arts amongst managements, such outputs are hardly valued at all and are unlikely to be submitted to the REF, nor win promotion for those who produce them.
Another issue is that of parity between creative practice outputs and other types. Many creative practitioners will never have had to submit their work to anything like peer review in the manner known for articles and monographs, and questions arise as to, for example, what number or type of compositions or recordings, visual art works or dance performances should be viewed as equivalent to the production of a monograph, when assessing promotion and the like? Music departments in which half or more of the faculty is made up of practitioners (usually composers) may have limited experience of peer review, or for that matter of wider academic debates and discourses, and some might argue that they are able to get ahead in their professions with considerably less time and effort than their equivalents who produce more traditional outputs. This is, I believe, a very real problem, which then maps onto questions of the significantly different requirements for producing different types of creative practice outputs, and needs serious consideration if there is to be any semblance of fairness within such academic departments.
Sayer also notes how many works in the humanities gain impact over an extended period of time, giving works of Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson as examples, and also notes how many can remain intensely relevant and widely cited long after publication, in distinction to a science-based model of cumulative and rapidly-advancing knowledge, whereby a certain passage of time leads to some outputs being viewed as outdated.
Over the last few days, various academics have been commenting on the REF, mostly on Twitter. I attempt to collect the most important of these here.
One of the first important threads came from geographer Julia Cupples (@juliecupples79). In this thread, she called the fundamental status of REF classifications ‘ludicrous’, argued how problematic it would be to direct research exclusively for REF and elite British academics, called the demands of ‘originality’ for a single publication ‘masculinist and colonial’, argued that female authors and those from ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage, not least because of less likelihood of citation. The ranking of junior colleagues by senior ones was labelled ‘one of the most toxic mechanisms in place in the neoliberal academy’, making a mockery of most other means of achieving equality, and so that the REF works against attempts to ‘dismantle discrimination, build collegiality, prevent academic bullying, and decolonize our campuses’. This thread was widely tweeted and praised, inducing others to share similar stories, with Cupples responding that the REF is ‘a means to discipline, humiliate and produce anxiety’. Not all agreed, with Germanist Michael Gratzke (@prof_gratzke) arguing that the peer review element for arts and humanities was a good thing, and that as the scheme would not disappear, one needed to deal with it reasonably. More respondents were sympathetic, however. Urban Studies Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (@spiritofwilson) cited the REF as a cause of ‘the demeaning command-and-control management style that has infected UK universities, and the creation of the soulless apparatchiks that rise up through the ranks to take every ounce of pleasure out of research and writing’, and how it prevents ‘a climate of psychological safety, trust, mutual respect, and togetherness; a place where it is safe to take risks’. Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) asked whether metrification fetishises ‘engagement’, though a different view was taken by Spanish musicologist and novelist Eva Moreda Rodriguez (@TheDrRodriguez), in response to some queries of my own to Cupples. Cupples had said that it would be ‘deeply problematic if we started writing for REF and a panel of elite British academics rather than for our research communities’, to which I asked about the definition of a ‘research community’ and why they should be exempt from external scrutiny and issues of parity with other (sub-)disciplines, also pointing out that both the Chicago School of Economics or some groups of racial theorists would have fitted this category. Cupples maintained that such communities were not groups of academics, but Moreda asked in return how ‘we avoid academic work being judged on the basis of whether it reinforces& confirms the basic tenets & prejudices of said research community?’, as well as whether such community engagement was already covered through impact assessment?
Around the same time, drama lecturer Kate Beswick (@ElfinKate) blogged on ‘REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way’. Whilst accepting the need for assessment of academic research, she noted how layers of bureaucracy were created to game the system, the growth of internal practice REFs, the pressure to produce outputs simply to satisfy the REF rather than for any other value, and the new pressures which will follow implementation of open access policies. This, argued Beswick, would force scholars to find ‘REF compliant’ publishers, which would compromise academic objectivity, rigour, reach and international credibility. However, she did not suggest any alternative system.
However, the first major thread in defence of the REF came from historian David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress). Andress argued that the RAE/REF enabled quality research funding to go to post-1992 institutions, that every alternative had worse biases, and that the distributive mechanism was so wide that it could almost be called ‘a relic of socialism’, concluding with the confident claim that ‘If you get rid of it, you will definitely get something worse’. This was sure to produce many responses. Clinical psychologist Richard Bentall (@RichardBentall), who was a panelist in 2008 and 2014, argued that the process was ‘conducted with absolute fairness and integrity’, but the problem was with the interpretation of it by universities (a point which many others would also evoke in other threads). Bentall noted how his own former institution gave an edict telling no researcher to publish 2* papers, which constitute 80% of world science, so that the REF ‘has become an end in itself’. I myself responded that many places have concluded that research is of no value unless beneficial to the REF, also raising the question (about which I am most definitely in two minds) as to whether we need to accept that some institutions need to be focused on teaching rather than research, rather than all scrambling over a sum of government money which is unlikely to increase. Some subsequent interactions have however made me rethink this. I also noted how some assessors have little knowledge of anything beyond their own narrow and underdeveloped fields, but which nonetheless are felt necessary to be represented on panels, noted (as would many others) how a similar process is not used in many other countries, and was sceptical about any ‘better than any conceivable alternative’ argument. Andress responded that he was not saying that, but that better alternatives which can be conceived cannot be easily put into effect, and also that, in light of the expansion of the sector, ‘RAE/REF is on the positive side of the ledger’, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. In a series of tweets, I also expressed some questions about whether all aspects of the expansion had been positive, without corresponding increases in the level of secondary education, which can have a net levelling effect when the Oxbridge/Russell Group model is applied to institutions with very different types of student bodies, from this arguing that REF was a part of a process which pretended there were not major differences between institutions, and causes huge pressures for academics at institutions where the teaching demands are higher for students with less inclination towards independent study. These are highly contentious arguments, I realise, which I want to throw out for consideration rather than defend to the last.
Moreda also responded to Andress, taking a medium view. In a thread, she acknowledged the potential of the REF for management to use to bully academics and the inordinate use of resources, but noted that it had enabled her to gain an academic position in the UK, which would otherwise have been very difficult without an Oxbridge pedigree, having a foreign accent, with little teaching experience at that point, and so on. However, she did also temper this by noting that the ability to produce REFable publications relied upon her being ‘able-bodied and without caring duties’, and that a continued discourse was required in order to consider how to accommodate others.
I asked REF defenders whether REF panellists ever read more than a few pages of a monograph, because of the time available, or listened carefully to audible outputs (rather than reading the 300-word statements which can act as spin)? Moreda responded by framing the issues as whether the REF or equivalent can ever be free of corruption, and whether such a system needs to exist at all. She was ambivalent about both questions, but also disliked the implied view of some REF-opponents that ‘research shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny or accountability’. Whilst agreeing on this latter point, I argued that REF does not really account for parity between disciplines and sub-disciplines, some with vast differences of time and effort (especially where archival or fieldwork are involved) required for producing an equivalent output. I proposed that no output should receive 3* or 4* where authors ignore relevant literature in other languages, and that the standards of some journals should be scrutinised more. Moreda essentially agreed with the need for wider factors to be taken into account, whilst (in somewhat rantish tone!) I continued that examiners needed a wide range of expertise across multiple sub-disciplines, and asked how in historical work like hers and mine (I work on music in Nazi and post-war Germany, she works on music in Franco’s Spain and amongst Spanish exiles) how many would know if we were making up or distorting the content of the sources? Knowing of a time when there was a leading REF assessor who could not read music, I asked how they could judge many music-related outputs, and both Moreda and I agreed there could be merit in using non-UK examiners, while I also suggested that a department should be removed from the REF when one of their own faculty members is on a panel, because of the potential for corruption.
Theatre and Performance/Early Modern scholar Andy Kesson (@andykesson) posted a harrowing thread relating to his early career experiences at the 2014 REF, for which his outputs were a monograph and an edited collection. In the lead-up, he was informed that these were ‘”slim pickings” for an ECR submission’, and pushed to get them out early and develop other publications. This came at a time when Kesson’s father died and he was forced to witness his mother in the late stages of a long-term fatal illness. Whilst deeply upset by these experiences, Kesson tried to explain that he would struggle to fulfil these additional publication demands, and was told this work was non-negotiable. After the death of his mother, her own father also became extremely ill, and Kesson was forced to do his work sitting next to his hospital bed. When offered a new job, his previous institution threatened legal action over his ‘slim’ REF submission, leading to a dispute lasting two years. Many were upset to read about the callousness of Kesson’s former institution. Social identity scholar Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) responded that ‘academics are the most resilient people on earth, who are willing to endure so much yet still believe in their absolute singular importance – only to be told “no, you are wrong” in every aspect of their professional lives’. However, one dissenting voice here and elsewhere was that of Exeter Dean and English Professor Andrew McRae (@McRaeAndrew), who cited Wilsdon’s defence of the REF mentioned earlier, and argued that no QR money would ever be given without state oversight, asking whether a better model than the REF existed? Engineering Professor Tanvir Hussain (@tanvir_h) argued that the problem was with Kesson’s institution’s interpretation of REF rules rather than the rules themselves, a theme which others have taken up, on how the ambiguities of the REF are used as a weapon for favouritism, bullying and the like.
Geographer Tom Slater (@tomslater42), having read many of the worst stories about people’s experiences with the REF, called out those who serve on panels, making the following claims:
A) you are not being collegial
B) you are appallingly arrogant if you think you can offer an evaluation of the work of an entire sub-discipline *that has already been through peer review*
C) you are not doing it because somebody has to
D) you are not showing “leadership”
E) you are contributing to a gargantuan exercise in bringing UK academia into international disrepute
F) you are making academia an even more crappy for women, minorities, critical thinkers, and great teachers
G) if you all stood down, HEFCE would have massive problem
Various people agreed, including in the context of internal pre-REF assessments. Another geographer, Emma Fraser (@Statiscape) suggested simply giving any REF submission a 4*, a suggestion Slater and sociologist Mel Bartley (@melb4886) endorsed, and was made elsewhere by novelist and creative writing lecturer Jenn Ashworth (@jennashworth). Linguistics scholar Liz Morrish (@lizmorrish) was another to focus on the behaviour of individual institutions, maintaining that ‘the
#REF was NEVER intended to be an individual ranking of research. It was intended to give a national picture and be granular only as far as UoA. What you are being asked to do is just HR horning in on another occasion for punishment’. Slater himself also added that ubiquitous terms such as ‘REFable’ or ‘REF returnable’ should be abandoned.
Paul Noordhof (@paulnoordhof) asked in this context ‘Suppose there were no REF, or equivalent, linked to research performance. What would stop the University sector achieving efficiency savings by allowing staff numbers to reduce over time and doubling teaching loads? Especially for some subjects’, but Slater responded that collective action from academics (as opposed to the more common action supporting and promoting the REF) would stop this. Slater also responded directly to McRae’s earlier post, including the statement ‘Careful what you wish for’, by arguing that ‘most would wish for a well funded sector where we don’t have to justify our existence via an imposed, reductive, compromised, artificial assessment system that destroys morale. Careful what you lie down for’.
Italian social scientist Giulia Piccolino (@Juliet_p83), responding to my retweeting of Slater’s original thread, called herself ‘the last defender of the REF’, which she felt to be ‘a bad system but the least bad system I can imagine’, a similar position to that of Andress. In response, I suggested that a better system might involve the submission of no more than two outputs from any department, allowing much more time to be spent on peer review. Piccolino noted that in other countries where she had worked, appointments depended simply on one’s PhD supervisor (a point she also made in response to Cupples), that scholars stop researching after receiving a permanent job (but still try and control junior figures) (something I have observed in some UK institutions), and so argued that while the REF could could be improved and humanised, it seemed a break on arbitrary power as encountered elsewhere. Piccolino’s returned elsewhere to her theme of how the transparency and accountability of the REF were an improvement on more corruptible systems, with which many UK academics were unfamiliar.
The debates with McRae continued, after his response to Cupples, in which he called the REF ‘an easy target’ and suggested that its demise would leave academics reliant on grants (a view endorsed wholeheartedly by Piccolino), claimed that many would prefer to replace peer-review with metrics, and that impact produced some important activity. Legal academic Catherine Jenkins (@CathyJenkins101) asked if things were so bad before the introduction of the RAE in 1986, to which McRae responded that he did not work in the UK then, but saw the problems of an Australian system in which publications in ‘a low-achievement environment’ in which many had not published for years, did not help a younger academic get a job. Modern Languages scholar Claire Launchbury (@launchburycla) argued that the modern Australian system (despite, not because of, its own ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) system for research evaluation) was practically unrecognisable in these terms. In response to a query from Marketing lecturer Alexander Gunz (@AlexanderGunz) relating to the lack of a REF equivalent in North America, McRae responded that that system was radically different, lacking much central funding, but where ‘state institutions are vulnerable to the whims of their respective govts, so in that respect greater visibility/measurability of performance might help’. Cupples herself responded to McRae that ‘The vast majority of universities in the world have no REF (and neither did British universities not so long ago) and yet research gets done and good work gets published’. Historical sociologist Eric R. Lybeck (@EricRoyalLybeck), a specialist in universities, echoed the view of Swinnerton-Dyer in hearkening back to the ‘light touch’ of the first RAE, which ‘would be an improvement’, and also argued against open access, saying this ‘distorts and changes academic practices’.
Film lecturer Becca Harrison (@BeccaEHarrison) posted her first REF thread, detailing her disillusion with UK academia as a result of the system, noting that she was told when interviewing for her first post-PhD job that her research ‘had to be world leading’ (4*) in order to get an entry-level job, and feeling that even this might amount to nothing because ‘there are 100 ECRs with 4* work who need my job’. This led her to support calls to boycott preparations for the REF as part of continuing industrial action. Another thread detailed common objections to the REF, then in a third thread, Harrison detailed her experiences with depression and anxiety attacks during her PhD, leading to hair loss and stress-induced finger blisters making it impossible to type, as well as early experiences with a poorly-paid teaching fellowship together with a non-HE job to pay bills, working 18 hour days in order to produce a monograph and endlessly apply for jobs. In her first full-time job, Harrison encountered bullying, misogyny from students, a massive workload and obsessiveness about production of 4* outputs. This did not lead to a permanent contract, but a new job offer came with huge requirements just for grade 6/7. She rightly said ‘please, people implementing REF, people on hiring committees, please know that this is what you’re doing to us – and that when we’ve done all this and the system calls us ‘junior’ and treats us like we don’t know what we’re doing we will get annoyed’.
Some further questions were raised by several on the new rules on open access, for example from Politics scholar Sherrill Stroschein (@sstroschein2), who argued that this would ‘just make book writers produce best work outside of REF’. But this important debate was somewhat separate from the wider question of the value of the REF, and what system might best replace it, which I decided to raise more directly in a new thread. There were a range of responses: musicologist Mark Berry (@boulezian) argued for a move away from a model based upon the natural sciences, and claimed that ‘Huge, collaborative grants encourage institutional corruption: “full economic costing”‘, while Moreda alluded to an article from 2017 about the possibility of a ‘basic research income’ model, whereby everyone had a certain amount allocated each year for research, so long as they could prove a reasonable plan for spending it (David Matthews, ‘Is “universal basic income” a better option than research grants?’, THES, 10 October 2017, though engineer David Birch responded that this would ultimately lead to another system similar to the REF). She saw how this would be insufficient for most STEM research and some in the humanities, but this could then be supplemented by competitive funding, as is already the case. Berry made a similar point to Moreda, also noting how much money would be saved on administration, whilst Cupples also agreed, as did sociologist Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste). Sums of up to around £10K per year were suggested; Burton also added that larger competitive grants should be assigned on a rotating basis, so that those who have had one should be prevented from holding another for some years, to create openings for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) and ECRs. I responded that this might exacerbate a problem already prevalent, whereby time-heavy species of research (involving archives, languages, old manuscripts, etc.) would be deterred because of the time and costs involved; Burton agreed that ‘slow scholarship’ is penalised, especially ethnographic work (this type of point was also made by archaeologist Rachel Pope (@preshitorian), comparing time-intensive archaeological work with ‘opinion pieces’ judged as of similar merit), while Moreda suggested that some ‘sliding scale’ might be applied depending on whether research involves archives and the like, though acknowledged this could result in ‘perverse incentives’.
I also noted that one consequence of Burton’s model would be a decline in the number of research-only academics, but that it would be no bad thing for all to have to do some UG core teaching (with which Cupples agreed). Burton’s response was ambivalent, as some are simply ‘not cut out for teaching in a classroom’, though I suggested similar problems can afflict those required to disseminate research through conferences and papers, to which Burton suggested we also need to value and codify teaching-only tracks for some. Moreda was unsure about the proposal to restrict consecutive grants, especially for collaborative projects, though also suggested that such a model might free up more money for competitive grants. Noting earlier allegations of careerism, etc., Berry argued that one should not second-guess motivations, but there should be space for those who are not careerists, and that it would be helpful for funds to assist with language or analytical skills or other important things.
I asked who might have figures for (i) no. of FTE positions in UK academia at present (to which question I have since found the figure of 138,405 on full-time academic contracts, and 68,465 on part-time academic ones, in 2016-17); (ii) current government spending on research distributed via REF (the figure for 2015-16 was £1.6 billion), and (iii) the administrative costs of REF (for which a HEFCE report gives a figure of £246 million for REF 2014). This latter figure is estimated to represent roughly 2.4% of a total £10.2 billion expenditure on research by UK funding bodies until REF 2021, and is almost four times that spent on RAE 2008. Nonetheless, its removal would not make a significant difference to available research funds. If one considers the ‘basic research income’ model (in the crudest possible form) relative to these figures, an annual expenditure of £1.6 billion would provide £10K per year for 160,000 full-time academics, which would be a very large percentage. if the part-time academics are assumed to average 0.5 contracts.
An arts and humanities scholar who goes by the name of ‘The Underground Academic’ (@Itisallacademic) (hereafter TUA) felt the basic income model would prevent a need to apply for unnecessary large grants, and also expressed personal dislike for collaborative projects, a view which runs contrary to orthodox wisdom, but was backed by Moreda and Berry. I agreed and also questioned the ‘fetishisation of interdisciplinary work’ as well. TUA responded with a pointer to Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is a sustained scholarly critique of interdisciplinarity, so often assumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Burton also asked that employers and funders value book-based research more, and expressed frustration that her own work on social theory is deemed ‘easy’, to which I added an allusion to a common situation by which reading-intensive work, often involving carefully critical investigation of hundreds of books, can be dismissed as entailing a ‘survey text’.
There were a range of other more diverse responses. Cupples also argued that the New Zealand system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), whilst imperfect, was ‘a thousand times better than the REF’; Cupples and Eric Pawson authored ‘Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university‘, New Zealand Geographer 68/1 (April 2012), pp. 14-23. Amongst the key differences Cupples outlined were individual submissions, crafting of one’s own narrative, own choice of most suitable panel, own choice of nominated outputs, information on how one did oneself (not available to others), and greater support from departments.
Piccolino returned to her earlier questions about the potential for corruption in non-REF-based academic cultures, and asked ‘which system guarantees that people are hired for being committed, dedicated researchers vs being friends, friends of friends, products of elite institutions etc?’. Following Cupples mention of the PBRF, Piccolino also mentioned the Italian abilitazione nazionale, providing criteria for associate and full professors, but she suggested it was of little effect compared to patronage and the need for compliant researchers. This system was, according to Piccolino, closer to the REF than the German Habilitation. She also drew attention to a scathing article on corruption in Italian academia (Filippomaria Pontani, ‘Come funziona il reclutamento nelle università’, Il post, 11 October 2016).
Social scientist Gurminder K. Bhambra (@GKBhambra) pointed out the intensification of each iteration of the REF, with the current post-Stern version more individualised and pernicious than before. Medievalist James T. Palmer (@j_t_palmer) argued that REF is not the primary means of distributing research funding, because the majority is distributed through competition, though the REF may determine university funding in general (a profound observation whose implications need wider exploration).
Medieval and early modern historian Jo Edge (@DrJoEdge) asked why, in a REF context, peer-reviewed book chapters are seen as inferior to journal articles, to which Andress replied that (a) some believe book peer-review is less rigorous, as chapters are pre-selected and reviewed collectively; (b) the chapters will have less impact since less easy to find through the usual search engines (a point which Burton said she had also heard); (c) old-style elitist prejudice.
A sardonic exchange proceeded between three musicians or musicologists : composer Christopher Fox (@fantasticdrfox, himself a REF 2014 panelist), Berry, and me. Fox felt that ‘the current UK research model is counterproductive in the arts’ and that ‘Competition is a useless principle around which to organise our work’. I asked what it would mean to rank the work of leading late-twentieth-century composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Robin Holloway, or the playing of pianists Aloys Kontarsky and David Tudor, or clarinettists Harry Sparnaay and Armand Angster, as 3* or 4*, especially if non-musicians were involved in the process? Fox also referenced US composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and as how one can fix criteria which account for the disparities in their aesthetic intentions, while Berry pointed out that Anton von Webern (almost all of whose works are short in duration) would ‘never have been able to “sustain his invention over a longer time-span”‘, alluding to a common criteria for composition. Conversely, I asked if Erik Satie’s Vexations (which consists of two lines of music repeated 840 times), or the music of La Monte Young (much of it very extended in duration) should ‘have been regarded as streets ahead of most others, if submitted to REF?’, in response to which musicologist (French music expert) Caroline Potter (@carolinefrmus), author of several books on Satie, alluded to an upcoming ‘REF-related satire’ which ‘seems like the only sane way to deal with the business’. I asked about whether all of this contributed to a ‘a renewed, and far from necessarily positive, concept of the “university composer” (or “university performer”)’ (terms which have often been viewed negatively, especially in the United States), when academia is one of the few sources of income. Fox felt that this culture encouraged ‘the production of compositions that only have significance within academia’. I also raised the question of whether academics looked down on books which could be read by a wider audience, which Berry argued stemmed from envy on the part of those with poor writing skills.
Independently, cultural historian Catherine Oakley (@cat_oakley) echoed the views of Kesson and Harrison, as regards the impact of REF upon ECRs, who need ‘monograph + peer-reviewed articles’ to get a permanent job, yet start out after their PhDs in ‘precarious teaching posts with little or no paid research time’.
Elsewhere, industrial relations expert Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) advocated boycott of preparations for the REF and TEF. In a series of responses, some asked how this could be done, especially when individuals are asked to submit their own outputs for internal evaluation. Further questions ensued as to whether this might lead to some of the worst (non-striking) academics undertaking the assessment.
Sayer himself (@coastsofbohemia) also contributed to these Twitter exchanges. In a first thread, he alluded to a passage from his book: ‘In a dim and distant past that is not entirely imaginary (and still survives for the shrinking minority of faculty members in N America) research was something that academics undertook as a regular part of their job, like teaching … Universities … expected their staff to publish … and academics expected universities to give them sufficient time to pursue their research … There was no *specific* funding for time for research but … the salary was meant to support and remunerate a staff member’s research as well as his or her teaching … [whereas today] Because the only govt support for universities’ “research infrastructure … and pathbreaking research …” comes through QR funding and QR funding is tied to RAE/REF rankings, any research that scores below a 3* necessarily appears as unfunded. The accomplishment of the RAE/REF … is to have made research *accountable* in the literal sense of turning it into a possible object of monetary calculation. This makes the REF a disciplinary technology in Foucault’s sense … which works above all through the self-policing that is produced by the knowledge that one’s activities are the subject of constant oversight. Both inputs (including, crucially, academics’ time) and outputs (as evaluated by REF panels and monetized by the QR funding formula) can now be *costed.* The corollary is that activities that do not generate revenues, whether in the form of research grants or QR income, may not count in the university’s eyes as research at all.’ In response to a question from me about his feelings on the argument that RAE/REF had helped post-1992 institutions, Sayer argued that there were other alternatives to no funding or REF-based funding, alluding to some of the suggestions in his article on peer review listed earlier. In a further thread, he summarised these arguments: the relative merits of peer review vs. metrics was ‘not the issue’. Sayer asserted that ‘Peer review measures conformity to disciplinary expectations and bibliometrics measure how much a given output has registered on other academics’ horizons’, and that neither of these are a reliable basis for 65% of REF ranking. Instead, he suggested that more weight should be allocated to research environment and resources, research income, conference participation, journal or series editing, professional associations, numbers of research students, public seminars and lectures, all of which are measurable.
Literature and aesthetics scholar Josh Robinson (@JshRbnsn) joined the discussions towards the end of this flurry of activity. Coming into one thread, he noted that internal mock-REF assessments meant ‘that the judgements of powerful colleagues with respect to the relative merits of their own & others scholarship can never be held to account’, since individual scores are not returned to departments, also arguing that this would be exacerbated in REF 2021. In response to McRae, Robinson added his name to those advocating a basic research income, which McRea said would technically be possible, but in practice ‘would redistribute tens of millions per year from RG to post-92 unis. Try that on your VC!’. Robinson’s response was to quote McRae’s tweet and say ‘the manager at a Russell Group insitution shows what he’s actually afraid of.’ But in response to a further statement in which Robinson thought that what his VC ‘would be afraid of would be a generally good thing’, McRae suggested that this might simply lead VCs to make redundancies. Robinson pointed out that an allocation by FTE researcher would provide an incentive to hire more people with time for research. Robinson has indicated that he might be able to make available a recent paper he gave on the REF, which I would gladly post on here.
But Morrish, responding that McRae’s claim that the REF is ‘the price we pay, as a mechanism of accountability’, retorted that ‘the price we pay’ is ‘a) Evidence of mounting stress, sickness and disenchantment among academics REF-audit related; b) Ridiculous and career-limiting expectations of ECRs’.
A few other relevant writings have appeared recently. Socio-Technical Innovation Professor Mark Reed (@profmarkreed) and social scientist Jenn Chubb (@JennChubb) blogged on 22 March calling on academics to ‘Interrogate your reasons for engaging in impact, and whatever they are, let them be YOUR reasons’, referencing a paper published the previous week, ‘The politics of research impact: academic perceptions of the implications for research funding, motivation and quality’, British Politics (2018), pp. 1-17. Key problems identified included choosing research questions in the belief they would generate impact, increased conflicts of interest with beneficiaries who co-fund or support research, the necessity of broadening focus, leading to ‘shallow research’, and more widely the phenomenon of ‘motivational crowding’, by which extrinsic motivations intimidate researchers from other forms, and a sense that impact constitutes further marketisation of HE. Chubb and Richard Watermeyer published an article around this time on ‘Evaluating ‘impact’, in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF): liminality, looseness and new modalities of scholarly distinction’, Studies in Higher Education (2018), though I have not yet had chance to read this. Historian Tim Hitchcock (@TimHitchcock) also detailed his experiences of the RAE/REF from the late 1980s onwards, first at North London Polytechnic. Hitchcock argues that:
I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the ‘old’ universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the ‘new’ universities, was a part of the same strategy. It worked. Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s – or at least became more focussed on research and publication.
Hitchcock goes on to detail his experiences following a move to the University of Hertfordshire after RAE 1996. He notes how hierarchies of position (between Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) became more important than ever, and recruitment was increasingly guided by potential RAE submissions. However, Hitchcock became more disillusioned when he took a position at the University of Sussex after REF 2014, and saw how the system felt ‘more a threat than a promise’ in such places, in which REF strategy was centrally planned. He notes how ‘The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system’, the system was increasingly rigged in favour of ‘old’ universities, and made life increasingly difficult for ECRs, who had to navigate ever-bigger hurdles in order simply to secure a permanent position. Hitchcock concludes that:
Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege – the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the ‘neo-liberal’ university that is the problem; but the ‘neo-liberal’ university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.
He does not write off the potential of the REF to change this, and appears to see the particular ways it is administered and used (and viewed by some in ‘old’ universities) as the problem.
There is more to say about the Thatcherite roots of the RAE, her disdain for the ‘old’ universities, especially after her alma mater, Oxford University, refused in 1985 to award her an honorary doctorate, and what the 1992 act meant in terms of a new vocational emphasis for higher education in general, to which I may return in a subsequent blog post.
It is very clear that the majority of Academic Twitter are deeply critical or bitterly resentful of the RAE/REF, and most believe reform to be necessary. Editorial director of the THES, Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) offered up a poll asking whether people thought the REF and RAE had been positive or negative; the results were 22% and 78% respectively (and further comments, mostly making similar points to the above, followed). The arguments pro and contra, as have emerged over the weekend can be summarised as follows:
Pro: provides some transparent external scrutiny and accountability; enables funding for post-1992 institutions; enables some to find work who would find it impossible in other systems dominated by patronage; is a better model than any other which has been discovered; employs peer-review rather than metrics.
Contra: invests too much power in managers; creates bullying and intimidatory atmosphere at work through REF preparation mechanisms; makes job market even more forbidding for ECRs; highly bureaucratic; very costly; dominates all research; time-consuming; discriminatory; sexist; colonialist; makes few allowances for those with mental health, care, family, or other external commitments; uncollegiate; employs assessors working outside their area of expertise; uses too many UK academics as assessors; marginalises 2* work and book chapters; fetishises collaborative or interdisciplinary work; falsely erases distinctions between institutions; relies on subjective views of assessors; artificially bolsters certain types of creative practice; is not employed in almost any other developed country; employs mechanisms more appropriate that STEM subjects than arts, humanities and social sciences; has increased pressure on academics with every iteration; causes huge stress and sickness amongst academics.
Stern has not been enough, and there is no reason to believe that those making the final decisions have much interest in the welfare of lecturers, or for that matter the creation of the best type of research culture. Major reform, or perhaps a wholly new system, are needed, and both government and the OfS and Research England should listen to the views expressed above. And new employment laws are urgently needed to stop the destruction of academics’ lives which is happening, regularly as a result of the REF.
The following is a text from which I read an abridged version at the debate at City University on ‘Are we all ethnomusicologists now?’, which took place on June 1st, with panelists Amanda Bayley, Tore Lind, Laudan Nooshin, Michael Spitzer and myself. This entailed a series of statements and then a debate following on from Nicholas Cook’s article ‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 48-70.
The text and powerpoint slides used by Nooshin for this event can be viewed here. This statement contains the outlines of arguments I will be pursuing in more detail, with full references, in a forthcoming article. The filmed debate will be made available online soon, and furthermore some accounts and responses to it will also be going online at the Music at City blog. [EDIT: These are now online here. Furthermore, Michael Spitzer’s statement can be viewed here]
I have also posted a long section from the earlier ‘outsider’ critique of ethnomusicology by J.P.E. Harper-Scott, which is given with commentary (and a related passage from Aijaz Ahmad) here.
Are We All Ethnomusicologists Now?
Position Statement by Ian Pace, for debate at City University, June 1st, 2016.
The Term ‘Ethnomusicology’
The very term ‘ethnomusicology’ has obvious implications through the use of the prefix ‘ethno’, which Nooshin and others have suggested is itself problematic. Despite the non-geographically-specific origins of the Greek term, nonetheless the long history of ‘ethnomusicology’ having dealt with musical cultures outside of the Western art tradition, whether folk and vernacular traditions in the West, or musical cultures (including ‘high cultures’) from the non-Western world in particular, together with the contemporary resonances of ‘ethno’ or ‘ethnic’, all suggest something post-colonial, anti-imperialist, on the side of the wider masses, and so on. Who of an even vaguely left-of-centre political persuasion would want to be seen opposing such a thing? But this is different when the object of study for this sub-discipline is Western art music, and it is on this body, or even canon, of work in English that I intend to concentrate today. In general, I believe it is always a cause for concern when any type of scholarship is judged more for its politics than its scholarly rigour, whatever those politics might be, and ethnomusicology of whatever type should not be immune from critique for purely political reasons.
Own positions – introduction
The very last thing I would want to do is in any sense deny the value of studying music from outside the Western art music tradition; on the contrary, I believe it is essential. In the context of my own work on Michael Finnissy I have drawn extensively on ethnomusicological and folkloristic work, including John Blacking on Vendan African music, Alexis Chottin on Moroccan and Berber music, Habib Touma more widely on Arabic music, Diego Carpitella and others on Sardinian folk music, Samuel Baud-Bovey on Cretan folk music, Michael Hauser on Traditional Greenlandic music, any number of writers on African-American spirituals, and much else, not to mention related issues of orientalism and exoticism in music. These latter concerns have involved engagement not only with the tradition of Edward Said and later post-colonial theorists, but also alternative perspectives and critiques provided by the likes of Albert Hourani, Maxime Rodinson, Aijaz Ahmad and others.
I do not think however that we should have to be over-apologetic about a certain Eurocentrism in music study in Europe. Nor for the fact of being drawn to various types of music from very different social contexts primarily as a result of attraction to the sounds they make.
Nor would I wish in any sense to deny the vital importance of studying the social and political context of music and music-making. Ten years or so ago, I would get into furious arguments with some conservative musicians and others who were adamant that it was wrong to ‘bring politics into music’, and all my teaching and research into music history and other subjects involves a good deal of wider consideration of history, society, ideology, economics, the workings of musical institutions, and so on.
Yet nowadays I am deeply concerned, not about the incorporation of a plurality of approaches to music, but at the potential for subsumation of musicology into other disciplines, to such an extent that it loses any distinct identity of its own.
The Canon of Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music
On the hand-out you will find a bibliography I have compiled of relevant texts. I do not claim this to be comprehensive, but do believe it gives a fair range of what I would characterise as canonical works in this tradition. To keep the list within manageable limits, I have omitted studies of the performance and reception of Western art music outside of the Western world, such as the interesting work of Rachel Beckles Willson, Ben Etherington, Geoff Baker or Suzanne Wint, or various work dealing with the role of Asian musicians and music in Western traditions, such as that of Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau, Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, and Mari Yoshihara. There are three texts on the bibliography which time has not permitted to read: Livingston, which I haven’t been able yet to obtain (but am working on it), Chaikin and the full dissertation by Usner; so I will not refer to these.
I would separate out from my critique the excellent book by Michael Chanan which is really of a quite different nature to most of the others. This is really a social and economic history of music, in a long tradition of the work of Combarieu, Weber, Bloch, Mellers, Blaukopf, Raynor, Durant, and others, including some working in the former Soviet Bloc. Also I feel the work of Peter Jeffrey, to which I will return, is on another level of depth and expertise compared to most of the others, though not without some significant problems.
Sub-disciplines and issues of territory
As many have commented, defining ethnomusicology as a sub-discipline can prove elusive. But we still have scholars who self-identify as ethnomusicologists, and others who do not. Now there are very few ethnomusicology degrees in the UK, and as such ethnomusicologists have to find work on degree programmes simply identified as ‘music’. And while many popular music or music technology degrees are allowed to have dedicated degrees in which specialists in those fields can choose the whole core curriculum, those courses centered upon Western music, history, analysis, etc., are most frequently the ones which need to incorporate the ethnomusicologists. This can cause a good deal of tension, as found in various faculties.
In much of the literature I am considering (and also in the so-called ‘new musicology’), the writers spend a lot of time maligning Western art music, and so-called ‘traditional musicology’, often without detailed knowledge of either field – straw man characterisations are frequent, as for example in the work of Henry Kingsbury, Bruno Nettl, Stephen Cottrell or Pirkko Moisala. At the same time, I have seen no other sub-discipline so jealously defensive and keen to assert its own superiority, nor which spends so much time talking about itself in a somewhat cliqueish manner, endlessly telling its own story and creating its own canons of hallowed figures, as for example with Shelemay’s recounting of the figures behind the great ‘milestones’ of ethnomusicology: Alan Merriam, Alan Lomax, Timothy Rice, Mark Slobin, and equally revered non-musical sources such as the work of Clifford Geertz and Arjun Appadurai. Almost every writer in the canon I have drawn up cites most of the others before them, not least the work of Kingsbury, Philip Bohlman, Ruth Finnegan and Nettl, thus locating themselves within a newly constructed ‘great tradition’. Internal critique is very rare.
It often appears as if the simple fact of having employed what is identified as an ethnomusicological approach to the study of Western art music is enough to win any such writer a seat at the top table, and this overrides any more sober critical investigation of their work. This is the attitude I find in the work of Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Jonathan Stock, Cottrell, Tina K. Ramnarine, Moisala, Laudan Nooshin and some others. As such, in a relatively self-regulating world – through the processes of peer review, external examination and so on – what I believe to be very serious flaws in a good deal of this work, in terms of relatively standard scholarly criteria, are frequently overlooked. This is an approach which says as much about territorial motivations than any concern for fair and rigorous assessment of scholarship, and I find it very unhealthy.
Now I want to give you two quotes from John Blacking and Henry Kingsbury.
It is not enough to identify a characteristic musical style in its own terms and view it in relation to its society (to paraphrase a definition of one of the aims of ethnomusicology by Mantle Hood, who has done more for the subject than almost any other living ethnomusicologist). We must recognize that no musical style has “its own terms”: its terms are the terms of its society and culture, and of the bodies of the human beings who listen to it, and create and perform it.
John Blacking, How Musical is Man? (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1973), p. 25)
The standard rhetoric for this is that music be studied “on its own terms,” a phrase which generally means that certain abstract concepts (“melody,” “harmony,” “rhythm”) are to be analysed in terms of other similarly abstract terms (“structure,” “form,” “development”). The prevailing idea is that music is not to be understood in terms of its sociocultural context, but rather in terms of its internal organization and cohesion.’
Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), p. 16.
I was once told that if I did not judge ethnomusicology, or some other types of research, on their own terms, I should not be assessing them at all. But I believe that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I do not identify as an ethnomusicologist, but I have read a reasonable amount of such literature. Some would say though that I am unqualified to have a view, but by the same token, many ethnomusicologists would be disqualified from speaking about other musical disciplinary areas or fields of practice about which they do not hesitate to pronounce – not least, for example, Born and others on modernist music, about which there is little evidence of any detailed engagement or familiarity.
This is one reason why I want to concentrate my own critique on a limited sub-section of ethnomusicology, rather than claiming to be able to make sweeping statements about a whole discipline, something I doubt many, including many ethnomusicologists, could really do, unless able to read a huge number of languages and derive expertise in practically all the musics of the world.
Music in social and cultural context – dialectical approaches
The study of music in a wider social context is actually nothing like as new as sometimes suggested; even Nicholas Cook concedes this when mentioning musicological traditions from outside of the English-speaking world. But this can take various forms. I want to consider the following statement from Bruno Nettl, which appears in his book Heartland Excursions:
A major theme of ethnomusicological discourse is that fundamental values of a culture are expressed in its music.
The word ‘society’ could also be substituted for ‘culture’ if one wishes to give this statement a more sociological rather than anthropological feel. I do find this statement, at least if applied in a general manner, to be reductive and limiting. In its most fundamentalist manifestation – and I do recognise that this is not true of all ethnomusicological work – it resembles what was once called a ‘vulgar’ form of Marxism, by which all elements of a societal superstructure are nothing more than a by-product of the economic base. Engels in particular in some important late letters rejected this view and argued Marx also did (and there is significant evidence for this in his writings), maintaining that the relationship was more dialectical, and that the superstructure could reflect back upon and affect the base. Acceptance of this dialectical formation underlies a good deal of continental Western Marxism in the 20th century, and I would argue strongly for a similar model for the relationship between music or any other specific cultural form and the wider social and cultural context in which it occurs. I do not believe that there are many contexts which one can use to account for every detail of the music emerging from therein (I will concede there are a few), and so this makes for degrees of ‘relative autonomy’. In some societies, not least advanced industrial ones, is there not an important place for some dissident culture, which wishes to confront that society? In contrast to this, the reductive view I describe ultimately leads to the politics of Zhdanov, and I would characterise hostility towards consideration of aspects of musical autonomy in such a fashion.
Nettl also writes about how the ethnomusicologist should try to avoid doing anything to affect the culture being studied. Over and above the question of whether this is indeed possible, even just through writing and publishing about it, I wonder why this should always be paramount? As Marx famously said, philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it; the same might be said of some anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. But many of these latter are not, say, education reformers with positive proposals for meaningful change, but those embroiled at the heart of academic systems and seeking academic capital through the allegiances and ideologies of their work. I find this somewhat futile and symptomatic of an academic world whose social engagement is little more than skin deep.
Walter Benjamin argued that there no record of culture which is not also a record of barbarism; even if this is hyperbolic, there are plenty of cases for which this is true. Instead of fetishizing cultures simply by being able to be labelled as such, I believe we might do better to look for those aspects of cultures which are worth valuing in contemporary contexts.
Much of the ethnomusicological work I have been looking at does not simply consider the relationship between sounds and contexts, but brackets out sounding music out entirely. Without detailed consideration of the specifics of musical material, it is impossible to gauge the possibility of a dialectical relationship between sounds and context, and I believe this is one reason why many writers do not do so.
What remains is what I call ‘musicology without ears’. This requires little in terms of traditional musical skills (in whatever tradition), and I believe the more this achieves a dominant or hegemonic place within contemporary musical education, the more it contributes to what I have referred to elsewhere the deskilling of a profession (meaning the loss of many skills specific to that discipline). Musicology can become little more than a more elementary sub-section of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, but rarely with the breadth or depth of methodological awareness to be found in some of those other disciplines (though I have wider doubts about cultural studies/industries in general). This can facilitate the ominous possibility of musical departments being closed or simply incorporated into others. With this in mind, I would suggest that musically deskilled ethnomusicology might itself be better housed within these other disciplines already.
The Limits of Ethnography Alone
Now I have another quote on slide from a 2014 article by anthropologist Tim Ingold, ‘That’s enough about ethnography’, which I would just like to give as background to what I am about to say.
“Ethnographic” has become the most overused term in the discipline of anthropology. It is hard to say exactly when the term broke loose from its moorings, or what the reasons were for its subsequent proliferation. These reasons are undoubtedly complex and could be the subject for a separate historical study. My concern in this article, however, is prospective, not retrospective. For I believe that this overuse is doing great harm to anthropology, that it is holding it back while other fields of study are surging forward, and that it is actually preventing our discipline from having the kind of impact in the world that it deserves and that the world so desperately needs. And because the cause is desperate, I shall not refrain from polemic. The tenor of what follows is partisan, and deliberately so. I am sick and tired of equivocation, of scholarly obscurantism, and of the conceit that turns the project of anthropology into the study of its own ways of working. A discipline confined to the theatre of its own operations has nowhere to go. In its spiraling descent into irrelevance, it has no-one and nothing to blame other than itself.
My aim is not to eliminate ethnography, or to expunge it from our anthropological consciousness. Nor is it to underrate its significance, and the complex demands it places on those who practice it. Rather, I am concerned to narrow ethnography down so that to those who ask us, in good faith, what it means, we can respond with precision and conviction. Only by doing so, I contend, can we protect it from the inflation that is otherwise threatening to devalue its currency to the extent of rendering the entire enterprise worthless. For it is not only within anthropology that ethnography is on the loose. I am sure I speak for the majority of anthropological colleagues in deploring the abuse of the term that has become commonplace in social sciences beyond our shores. How many research proposals have we read, coming from such fields as sociology, social policy, social psychology and education, in which the applicant explains that he or she will conduct “ethnographic interviews” with a sample of randomly selected informants, the data from which will then be processed by means of a recommended software package in order to yield “results”?
Such a procedure, in which ethnographic appears to be a modish substitute for qualitative, offends every principle of proper, rigorous anthropological inquiry— including long-term and open-ended commitment, generous attentiveness, relational depth, and sensitivity to context—and we are right to protest against it. And, we are equally entitled to protest when those who assess our own proposals demand of us, in the name of ethnography, the same slavish adherence to the protocols of positivist methodology, by requiring us to specify—for example—how many people we intend to talk to, for how long, and how they will be selected. Against such benchmarks, anthropological research is bound to be devalued.
I do not deny the value of ethnographic approaches, but I do have severe doubts about their exclusive or simply primary use, especially when this entails an ideological opposition to combination with other methods. It can be as if it is more important to maintain a territorial ‘purity’ than draw upon the widest range of possible strategies to help with producing the result.
In the work of Kingsbury, Nettl and Cottrell, one encounters very crude historical and analytical approaches. For example, Kingsbury’s consideration of the pedal marking in the second movement of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto takes no account of the type of instrument involved, which can profoundly affect the sounding result, and seems to imagine that it is impossible to execute opposing dynamics in two hands on the piano. Furthermore, his comments on Marcus Goldmann’s thoughts on Chopin editions shows little awareness of the real complications entailed, as Chopin published most of his works simultaneously in slightly different versions in three countries (and which differ in the specific case cited here). I believe he is dead-set upon setting up a clear dichotomy between fidelity to a text and some nebulous notion what is ‘expressive’, the latter defined with minimal thought to the historically problematic nature of such a category.
In the case of Shelemay’s article on the Boston early music movement, to my mind one of the weakest articles I have read, here are some of the findings (there are numerous others of a similar nature):
Early music practitioners, speaking from their own experiences, referred often to the scholarly literature and critical editions, which they know intimately and on which they draw in preparing detailed notes for concert programs and published recordings.
Thus the early music movement, while drawing on music of the historical past, is powerfully informed by the creative impulses of its practitioners and the aesthetics of the present.
Musicians in all of the ensembles with which we worked testified to the centrality of creative activity in their conceptualization and performance of musical repertory.
Many of our associates provided considerable detail about their instruments, conveying not just extraordinary technical knowledge, but the instrument’s history and social significance with great elegance.
For example, violinist Daniel Stepner noted the creative role of members of the Boston Museum Trio, consisting of himself, gambist Laura Jeppesen, and keyboardist John Gibbons, in such basic and little discussed processes as selecting and formulating their own repertory:
There’s lots of music that’s appropriate for us to play together, but very little, relatively little music that was written specifically for these instruments. (Daniel Stepner, 22 October 1996)
That musicians discuss performance practices in detail is no surprise, but the manner in which they were able to articulate details of musical practice as well as values behind them was one of the richest outcomes of the ethnographic process. For instance, while testimony about musical instruments is perhaps more easily rendered because of the easy availability of the instruments themselves, we found that singers also provided nuanced discussions of vocal production as well speculated on the difficult philosophical issues surrounding the voice and textual articulation.
I would have to say that this is all extremely basic (as is, say, the work of Frederick Seddon and Michelle Biasutti), certainly in comparison to a wide range of scholarly historical work on these areas; engagement with this work would have enhanced this study very considerably.
Finnegan admits reasonably that she does not feel qualified to engage with the music she encounters, but ultimately I feel her survey is quite limited as a result, and in many ways serves more as a list of data rather than critical analysis. Catherine M. Cameron tries to define ‘experimental music’ but with no evidence of familiarity either of later traditions to which this term has been applied, the history of the term, or perhaps most significantly of music created in Europe at the same time as that she studies. As such, I do not believe she is really in a position to argue for American ‘experimental music’ as a distinct field from European traditions, in the manner she does, though this is also true of others who have written on the subject, which is the subject of another paper!
In particular, in the majority of the work in my bibliography, there is little or no engagement with sound – this is true of the work of Marcia Herndon, Finnegan, Georgina Born, Vicky L. Brennan, Shelemay, Cottrell, Stephanie E. Pitts, Seddon and Biasutti, Eric Usner and Hettie Malcolmson. Instead the writers use comments from others about music, mostly of a very vague and general nature, without much consideration of what self-fashioning might be involved; Cottrell even cites xenophobic comments from musicians about making the Hitler salute at a conductor who rehearsed in German, without further comment. If there were no attempts to draw conclusions about the sounding music, that might not be so bad – as with Finnegan, say – but some do. But even with more modest aims, I feel such work to be flawed – it is almost like assessing a performance or piece simply by asking the performer or composer their view of it, and reproducing that as one’s own view – indeed Moisala does precisely that.
When I taught at Dartington College, I sometimes found students would undertake a project simply by asking a handful of questions of their friends, then using their answers as data for a supposedly scholarly and statistically representative survey. I feel some ethnography essentially does this on a slightly bigger scale, not least because of a lack of critical and analytical perspective on the data sourced and its limitations.
There is an understandable post-colonial reticence on the part of many Western ethnomusicologists and anthropologists for engaging in critical views of non-Western societies and cultures they encounter. When this attitude is carried over into the study of Western art music, however, and text is padded out with long ethnographically sourced quotations (often from those who are not necessarily very verbally articulate) presented without much commentary, critique or analysis, one is left with a type of writing which resembles nothing so much as casual journalism or even a publicist’s material, as in the work of Brennan, Cottrell, Moisala and Ramnarine.
In many classic ethnographies (for example Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, or Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour), the collation and presentation of ethnographically sourced data, especially quotations, is a starting point for the study, leading to detailed critical analysis. Some of the work on Western art music essentially omits the second stage, or renders it rather trivial. I would not claim that description is a neutral activity, and can be undertaken with great care and skill, but in many cases here it amounts to little more than reportage, perhaps ‘filed’ in a handful of unremarkable categories. In a similar manner Finnegan’s long book does read rather like a government inspector’s report. Other work, such as that of Pitts, resembles feedback surveys conducted by marketing departments for musical institutions. Other work like that of Moisala can read like a hagiographic publicity piece, not so different from a much earlier type of ‘life and works’, but with much less analytical detail on the works.
Those entail one type of approach; another is very agenda-driven, and most phenomena are described in extremely loaded language. This is true of the work of Christopher Small, Kingsbury, Nettl, Born, Malcolmson. It is hard to imagine work with such a strong axe to grind being viewed so favourably if applied to a group of South Pacific Islanders, as Björn Heile has pointed out in the context of Born.
Ethnography also relies upon the investment of a good deal of faith on the part of the reader that the author has represented their source material in a fair manner, not distorting, misattributing, quoting radically out of context, fabricating, or blatantly ignoring substantial amounts of data which might not suit an argument. Where documentary sources are available, these can at least be checked by another where there is reason for doubt. I have to say that in some of these cases, seeing how information which can indeed be checked is treated in such a cavalier manner, I am not always sure I feel prepared to invest this faith, and might be sceptical about some of the writers’ other work as a consequence.
Oral Tradition, Jeffrey and Lind
I have had chance just to skim Tore Lind’s book The Past is always Present: The Revival of the Byzantine Musical Tradition at Mount Athos, which is fascinating, and clearly very far from being narrowly territorial or ideological – it combines fieldwork with other forms of evidence, paleographic, historical, etc. And I am aware that there is a wide range of other scholarship identified in one way or another as ethnomusicological for which this is the case; and for that matter other scholarship where very little other sources are available than those provided by fieldwork. But this is patently not the case with Western art music.
Lind writes about the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘reinvented’ pasts, with relation to Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s work on the ‘invention of tradition’. If I cannot buy into the characterisation of modern social theory cited from Arjun Appadurai which argues that such theory posits a ‘single modern moment’ – I find that too crude a characterisation on Appadurai’s part – I do believe there can and should be some type of middle way. This is where I think ideologies self-identifying as postmodern have been far from enlightening when presenting stark alternatives between the idea of history as some utterly objective body of facts on one hand, or completely unknowable on the other. I know of no serious historian who would argue the former position, but few other than the likes of Keith Jenkins or Patrick Joyce would deny there are some things which can be construed as facts with a fair degree of certainty. And there have been and will be many who would prefer that some of these are removed or at least marginalised from the historical record. Not just nationalistic politicians, but also many others associated with some institution or set of cultural practices in whose positive reputation they have much vested. Many in the Catholic Church might not like the long history of the abuse of children by priests, and their protection by the higher church authorities, to feature prominently in histories of that church, but I believe these are absolutely a part of that culture. For ‘traditions’ to be ‘invented’ does not require that nothing about these traditions has some palpable historical basis, but can simply mean that the particular selections are too narrow, idealised, and so on, and often used simply to legitimate present practices even where there exists historical evidence to the contrary. And for that reason I find Lind’s suggestion of allowing ‘various culture members to determine what they themselves believe to be authentic’ problematic – I would ask which culture members are granted such authority, and why should one necessarily privilege their view over that of others, including those who might have less obvious vested interests, and may be more subject to proper scholarly critique? When practitioners lay claim to historical foundations for their practice, as so many do, then it appears entirely legitimate to me to investigate critically the basis upon which those claims are made. This is not, of course, to say that there would necessarily be anything less worthy per se of a contemporary tradition which has no basis for such claims and does not make them.
Lind himself makes a critique of Peter Jeffrey’s work which concurs with that to which I was arriving – he says ‘It is a fantasy to imagine that some contemporary (“primitive”) practices exist untouched by time, making themselves available for chronological comparison, and, equally, to suppose that medieval chant has existed in a static form throughout history’ (p. 30). This indicates a wider problem with the use of ethnographic approaches alone to establish historical information, in cases where there are no living witnesses to the historical time in question, and especially where a long period of time has elapsed, as obviously with medieval chant. But even where living witnesses do exist, even then oral testimony can be problematic, not least because of the fallibility of human memory, as has been studied in detail by scholars working with survivors of genocide or other atrocities.
Lind does make the point that checking contemporary practice against historical evidence would not work in his study of Mount Athos, as the monks use the same historical evidence – though I presume he does not rule out the possibility, in this or other contexts, of discovering new historical evidence of which practitioners are unaware, and which might problematize such practice in terms of historical questions? Nonetheless, he says that ‘the ways that the monks interpret and relate to historical evidence become the central issue’ which seems eminently reasonable as an approach, and has some parallels with historically-informed performance of Western art music (bearing in mind that a large number of performers of such music, including those who would not self-identify as ‘historically informed’, appeal to some concept of a historical tradition to legitimate their practices).
Kingsbury, Nettl, Cottrell and Jonathan Shull all comment on the extent to which classical performers are often keen to present their pedagogical lineage – their teacher studied with X, who studied with Y, etc., etc., who studied with Beethoven, and so on. All except Shull view this unfavourably, and I would agree, seeing it as akin to a game of Chinese Whispers. Yet I do not see how then one can maintain that similar processes are so reliable with respect to oral traditions in other cultural environments, some of which have experienced major historical upheavals.
Kingsbury notes how any study of modern American culture is lent an ‘anthropological aura’ by referring to ‘the tradition of studying “simple” or “primitive” societies’. He gives as an example J.M. Weatherford’s ethnography of US Congress, uses of terms like ‘shamans’, ‘bigmen’, ‘warlords’, etc.
Many of the phenomena for which ritualistic or other anthropological explanations are given in this body of work, as in the work of Small, Kingsbury, Hearndon and Nettl, can be explained in practical terms. For example, the fact of not having doors opening directly into a concert hall can simply be a way of avoiding extraneous noise generated by latecomers. Kingsbury insists that when students contrast administrative weaknesses of an institution with the strength of teachers, they ‘conceal the fact that these factors are elements of a single organizational structure’. Well, many of the staff on the second floor of the Juilliard School during my time simply couldn’t care less about practical student matters, sometimes acting as if we were trespassing upon their time and space. I can’t see how asking them to buck their ideas up would have undermined the artistry of the faculty members.
It can seem, in line with Ingold’s critique, various writers including Kingsbury, Cottrell, Pitts, Malcolmson, and Shull are more concerned with forcing far-fetched analogies with other anthropological findings than the investigation of specifics relating to the matter under investigation. And this is part of a wider tendency to clothe the work in a good deal of jargon in ways I believe to be unnecessary.
Academics need to show in this day and age how they are supposedly connecting with a ‘real’ world, so often choose areas of study accordingly. But they also need to prove their writing is ‘academic’; simple liberal use of jargon serves this purpose, and will impress some naïve people belonging to management, REF examiners, or research council board members, even where the underlying thought and research is banal and unremarkable. I have seen countless examples of this not just in this body of ethnomusicology, but also new musicology, popular music studies, music sociology, film and media music studies, acoustic ecology, and so on.
A wider question exists of this work serving as a substitute for other political engagement, such as through industrial action within higher education, but that is beyond the scope of this talk.
Wider Politics and Aesthetics
Whilst the likes of K.A. Gourlay, Chanan, to some extent Nettl, and for that matter Howard Becker, come from slighter older traditions in the social sciences still showing the influence of Marxism – albeit frequently of the empirical and Stalinist variety dominant in the English-speaking world – the work of many younger figures demonstrate clearly the influence of ideologies frequently identified as postmodern. I would associate these strongly with the growth of neo-liberalism during the Thatcher-Reagan years, and then continuing after the end of the Cold War. This is most explicit in the work of Born, who has elsewhere expressed a clear view of the superior virtues of culture supported through ‘petty capitalism’ than by institutions supported by the state (which I would categorise as democratically accountable institutions financed through taxation and public spending), referring back to her IRCAM study in such a context. This accords perfectly with David Cameron’s ideal of the ‘big society’, and is music to the ears those who want to cut arts funding generated through taxation even further. One might conclude from Born’s work that the remoteness of the possibility that a UK or US government might ever give financial backing to similar institution should presumably be welcomed?
In general, in a lot of this work musical institutions are viewed very critically, but it is rare that industries – in many cases institutions funded by private capital rather than through taxation, as with much of the popular music industry – are subject to the same level of critique (as in Cottrell’s essay on ethnomusicology and the music industries). This is quite emblematic of an ideological phenomenon which some radical thinkers, including critics of cultural studies such as Todd Gitlin, Robert McChesney, Keith Tester or Joseph Heath, or anti-capitalist thinkers like Naomi Klein, have identified: whereby a superficial politics of ‘diversity’ is not so much a moderate call for a modification of capitalist society, but actually a means of giving new life and purpose to high capitalism, not least through the destruction (rather than reform) of existing social democratic institutions.
Similar views can be found in the writings of Nicholas Cook, in whose wider work one can encounter harsh criticism of the ‘disdain for the marketplace and its discourses’ in various European writers. When a French musicologist, Anne Boissière, criticised his Music: A Very Short Introduction for nihilism, his response was to accuse her of being part of ‘the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of “blood and soil”’. Dismissing social democratic European thinkers by contrived association with the Nazis is one of the least edifying aspects of our profession.
Timothy Rice writes in his Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (2014)
Ethnomusicologists do not begin their research with a judgment about what they imagine is “good music” or “music worthy of study” or “music that has withstood the test of time.” Instead, they assume that whenever and wherever humans make and listen to music with the keen devotion and attention that they do, then something important and worthy of study is going on.
Elsewhere one can often find ethnomusicological rejection of aesthetic value judgement – how do those coming from such a position really mark compositions or performances?
Cook rejects aesthetic valorisation directing study, arguing that musicologists should instead, like sociologists, ‘study social reality as they find it’, so that ‘The point is not that Madonna is good or bad but that she’s there’. But to bracket out or otherwise marginalise anything which is not ‘there’ (assuming ‘there’ means something which has gained some degree of prominence, for otherwise everything is ‘there’) renders invisible that cultural work whose producers have been unable to garner public visibility. Only a belief that the market will always provide the most fair selection could legitimise musicologists and others neglecting all else.
In place of explicit aesthetic judgement, in this work and much new musicology one encounters politically and morally loaded characterisations which I believe serve principally to attempt to close down debate. I find it sad when musicology has moved from a position of intense interest in music to one of morally self-righteous judgement, which as I have written about elsewhere, I believe derives in part from a desire to dominate one’s subject, a charge which can be laid at the door of aspects of some other disciplines, including anthropology and psychoanalysis, as well.
There are numerous moral grounds with which some will condemn the ethnomusicological work and ideologies of Bartók, or some of the work upon which Finnissy draws. But to me the value of that work is palpable because of the vital creative composition which would not have been possible in the same way without it. The same is true of some of the amazing music which has come out of IRCAM: amongst which I would include Boulez’s Répons, Berio’s Chemins ex V, Aperghis’s Machinations, Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, Risset’s Inharmonique, Saariaho’s Verblendungen, Manoury’s Pluton, Dillon’s Introitus, Murail’s L’Esprit des dunes, Nunes’s Lichtung I & II, Dusapin’s To Be Sung, or Czernowin’s Hidden. Ultimately I do believe that the importance of this type of compositional work (and its performance) exceeds that of any musicology, ethno- or otherwise.
I will end with a reapplication of Marcel Mauss to this field of ethnomusicology itself. Its participants offer up endorsements for the right theorists, the right canonised and revered ethnomusicologists, the right political outlook, generally that sort of ‘consumerist multiculturalism’ which accords well with modern neo-liberalism, to those who are in a position of power above them, and are rewarded for this through promotion and research grants in a process of exchange. Collegiate relationships within hierarchical academic structures are made possible through this process of reciprocity. This may be an unfair caricature, but no more so than many of the analyses in this body of work.
ETHNOMUSICOLOGY OF WESTERN ART MUSIC
Robert Faulkner, ‘Orchestra Interaction: Some Features of Communication and Authority in an Artistic Organization’, Sociological Quarterly 14 (1973), pp. 147-157.
Catherine M. Cameron, ‘Dialectics in the Arts: Composer Ideology and Culture Change’ (PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, 1982). Modified version published as Dialectics in the Arts: The Rise of Experimentalism in American Music (Westport, CO, and London: Praeger, 1996).
Christopher Small, ‘Performance as Ritual: Sketch for an Enquiry into the Nature of a Symphony Concert’, in Lost in Music: Culture, Style, and the Musical Event, edited Avron Levine White (London: Routledge, 1987), pp. 6-32.
Henry Kingsbury, Music, Talent, & Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
Marcia Herndon, ‘Cultural Engagement: The Case of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 20 (1988), pp. 134-145.
Ruth Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Bruno Nettl, ‘Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture (An Essay in Four Movements)’, Yearbook for Traditional Music 21 (1989), pp. 1-16; republished in Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons edited Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 137-155.
Philip V. Bohlman, ‘Of Yekes and Chamber Music in Israel: Ethnomusicological Meaning in Western Music History’, in Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History, edited Stephen Blum, Philip V. Bohlman and Bruno Nettl (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 254-267.
Peter Jeffery, Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures: Ethnomusicology in the Study of Gregorian Chant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Tamara Elena Livingston, Community of music: an ethnographic seminar in Champaign-Urbana (Champaign, IL; Elephant & Cat, 1993)
Michael Chanan, Musica Practica: The Social Practice of Western Music from Gregorian Chant to Postmodernism (New York: Verso, 1994).
Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the institutionalization of the musical avant-garde (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1995).
Vicky L. Brennan, ‘Chamber Music in the Barn: Tourism, Nostalgia, and the Reproduction of Social Class’, The World of Music 41/3 (1999), pp. 11-29.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, ‘Toward an Ethnomusicology of the Early Music Movement: Thoughts on Bridging Disciplines and Musical Worlds,’ Ethnomusicology 45 (2001), pp. 1-29.
Stephen Cottrell, Professional Music-Making in London: Ethnography and Experience (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘“Everybody Wants to be Pavarotti”: The Experience of Music for Performers and Audience at a Gilbert and Sullivan Festival,’ Journal of the Royal Musical Association 129 (2004), pp. 143-160.
Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘What Makes an Audience? Investigating the Roles and Experiences of Listeners at a Chamber Music Festival’, Music & Letters 86/2 (2005), pp. 257-269.
Jonathan Shull, ‘Locating the Past in the Present: Living Traditions and the Performance of Early Music’, Ethnomusicology Forum 15/1 (2006), pp. 87-111.
Pirkko Moisala, Kaija Saariaho (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
Frederick Seddon and Michele Biasutti, ‘A Comparison of Modes of Communication Between members of a String Quartet and a Jazz Quartet’, Psychology of Music 37 (2009), pp. 395-415.
Yara El-Ghadban. ‘Facing the Music: Rituals of Belonging and Recognition in Contemporary Western Art Music’, American Ethnologist 36/1 (2009), pp. 140-60.
Paul Chaikin, ‘Circling Opera in Berlin’ (PhD dissertation, Brown University, 2009).
Eric Martin Usner, ‘Cultural Practices of Classical Music in 21st Century Vienna’ (PhD dissertation, New York University, 2010).
Tina K. Ramnarine, ‘The Orchestration of Civil Society: Community and Conscience in Symphony Orchestras’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 327-351.
Melissa C. Dobson and Stephanie E. Pitts, ‘Classical Cult or Learning Community? Exploring New Audience Members’ Social and Musical Responses to First-time Concert Attendance’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 353-383.
Amanda Bayley, ‘Ethnographic Research into Contemporary String Quartet Rehearsal’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 385-411.
Eric Martin Usner, ‘‘The Condition of Mozart’: Mozart Year 2006 and the New Vienna’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011), pp. 413-442.
Pirkko Moisala, ‘Reflections on an Ethnomusicological Study of a Contemporary Western Art Music Composer’, Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011).
Hettie Malcolmson, ‘Composing Individuals: Ethnographic Reflections on Success and Prestige in the British New Music Network’, twentieth-century music 10/1 (March 2013), pp. 115-136.
Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts (eds), Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Bruno Nettl, ‘A Technique of Ethnomusicology Applied to Western Culture’, Ethnomusicology, 7/3 (September 1963), pp. 221-224.
Fredric Lieberman, ‘Should Ethnomusicology Be Abolished?’, with responses by E. Eugene Helm and Claude Palisca, Journal of the College Music Society 17/2 (1977), pp. 198-206.
K.A. Gourlay, ‘Alienation and Ethnomusicology’, in The Ethnography of Musical Performance, edited Norma McLeod and Marcia Hendon (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1980), pp. 123-146.
Klaus Wachsmann, ‘Applying Ethnomusicological Methods to Western Art Music’, World of Music 23 (1981), pp. 74-86.
Marcia Herndon and Norma McLeod, Music as Culture (Darby, PA: Norwood, 1980).
Joseph Kerman, Musicology (London: Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 155-181.
Stephen Blum, ‘Ethnomusicology vis-à-vis the Contemporary Fallacies of Musical Life’, Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 8/3 (1986), pp. 1-19.
Kay Kaufman Shelemay, ‘Crossing Boundaries in Music and Musical Scholarship: A Perspective from Ethnomusicology’, The Musical Quarterly 80/1 (1996), pp. 13-30.
Jonathan Stock, ‘New Musicologies, Old Musicologies: Ethnomusicology and the Study of Western Music’, Current Musicology 62 (1997), pp. 40-68.
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Musicology, Anthropology, History’, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, edited Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 31-44.
Henry Stobart (ed), The New (Ethno)musicologies (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008). Includes essays by Jim Samson, Michelle Bigenho, Fabian Holt, Nicholas Cook, Laudan Nooshin, Caroline Bithell, Tina K. Ramnarine, Philip V. Bohlman, John Baily, Martin Clayton, Abigail Wood, Jonathan P.J. Stock, Martin Stokes.
Stephen Cottrell, ‘Ethnomusicology and the Music Industries: An Overview’, Ethnomusicology Forum 19/1 (June 2010), pp. 3-25.
Georgina Born, ‘For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/2 (2010), pp. 205-243.
Laudan Nooshin (ed), ‘The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music’, special issue of Ethnomusicology Forum 20/3 (December 2011). Includes essays by Nooshin (‘Introduction: The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music’, pp. 285-300), Rachel Beckles Willson, Tina K. Ramnarine, Melissa C. Dobson and Stephanie Pitts, Amanda Bayley, Eric Usner, Pirkko Moisala (all listed above). Reprinted with an afterword by Philip V. Bohlman as The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Ian Pace: email@example.com
New article on abuse and classical music by Damian Thompson in the Spectator, and some wider reflections on classical music and abusePosted: December 5, 2014
A new article went online yesterday on abuse in the classical music world – Damian Thompson, ‘Classical music’s dirty little secret’, The Spectator, December 6th, 2014. It contrasts in particular the revelations about alleged abuse within the El Sistema organisation through the work of Geoff Baker, and those about abuse at Chetham’s School of Music and elsewhere, featuring an interview with me on this and related subjects. The article goes deeper than most have done previously, and I would urge all to read it.
I have been reflecting more widely on the relationship between the callous exertion of power in music and also aestheticised outlooks, and the abuse of both children and adults, and wanted to share a few thoughts growing out of what I said for the Spectator interview. I have published previously on this in the Times Educational Supplement here and here, and will write at more length on these issues at a future date. At the heart of this lie the issues of the exploitation of power beneath an artistic veneer, and the relegating of human interests secondary to other aesthetic or more abstract concerns, an subject which has exercised me for a great many years. Here are my thoughts for now.
There are multiple ways in which sexual abuse occurs in musical education in the UK (see my earlier posts here and here for documentation of various cases since 1990). One involves abuse of pre-pubescent boys in choirs, and has been found time and time again in many leading private schools; another involves adolescents, primarily but not exclusively girls, who are sexually exploited by instrumental teachers, especially in specialist music schools and at summer music courses and the like. There is also of course much evidence of abuse of both sexes by private music teachers, who are often not subject to the same checks as those working in some institutions. The process of sexual exploitation of adolescents also continues with young adults in conservatoires, in a similar fashion. Instrumental teachers have great power and prestige which can easily be exploited when they have access to vulnerable, sometimes star-struck, girls and young women. The many stories I have heard are utterly hideous and depressing. Teachers regularly reduce their students to tears so they can then comfort and sexually touch them, or ask the students to perform sexual acts as a sign of how much they ‘trust’ them. Some are told they can only do justice to certain types of music when they have become a ‘whole woman’, as a prelude to sex. Other teachers simply attempt to force themselves on students in lessons in ways which can be terrifying and amount to attempted rape. Some have been told by directors of institutions that if they dare to go to the police, then they can give up any hope they might have had of a musical career; those with powerful connections are indeed often in a position to do this.
But there are certainly non-sexual forms of abuse which have gone on at all the music schools as well, which can be just as damaging. The issues of abuse in the classical musical world are not in my opinion simply about some people in power being sexually attracted to some musicians – I don’t think that is something surprising, unnatural or wrong, even if they act on those desires, when the musicians are above the age of consent and of course consenting. But I believe these link to a deeper culture of power and its wilful exertion, a vocabulary and mentality of sexual predation as a strategy to demean, dominate, humiliate for reasons that are far from merely sexual. In this field, in my experience, there is no reason to believe that female teachers are any less likely to be culpable than male ones (and in the case of actual sexual abuse the gender divide is not necessarily so simple; even where not actual perpetrators, some female teachers and others have been amongst the most staunch defenders of abusers, and acted in hateful and vicious ways towards those they have exploited).
In such a context sexual abuse can often be an extension of other forms of emotional and physical abuse, in order to enforce a relationship of domination and dehumanisation mystified by the aura surrounding ‘artistic’ personalities and their relationships to others. An artistic aura and its associated temperament can often mask simple cases of fragile egos and other insecurities, which can be bolstered by dominating others. Such domination works best with a willing or at least helpless victim in the form of a child, or one who acts and appears like one.
At the same time, I think we need to look hard at the way audiences and others ‘consume’ and psychologically dominate musicians, especially young ones. Is the young performer presented in a rarefied fashion for an audience’s delectation so different from a glamour model, or even one in a window in a red light district? Are they meant to have a will of their own, or merely to please others?
The world view of the nineteenth-century aesthete still has a profound impact upon classical music culture, certainly in the UK, US, France and some other places. I have spent quite some time studying this in various contexts (not least the ways in which this outlook can be linked to fascism, as diagnosed in different ways by Walter Benjamin, Roger Shattuck and Frederic Spotts). The aesthetic movement was a type of quasi-aristocratic rearguard group of aesthetes reacting against the growth of bourgeois society and mass culture. They believed moral questions and human interests to be of little importance relative to their own notions of beauty. This beauty was of course something only a small number were in a position to appreciate, an aesthetic aristocracy if you like, and they often viewed other human beings in purely aesthetic terms. I believe this is profoundly dehumanising. There is also a considerable overlap between early aesthetes, including Pater, Wilde, Huysmans, Crowley and others, and the movement of ‘Uranian’ poets and some artists, a group of pederasts who were described in the volume Betrayal of Youth as like a nineteenth-century version of the Paedophile Information Exchange.
To the aesthete, a young boy not yet faced by the doubts, moral choices and responsibility of an adult, is unthreatening and more ripe to be adored and salivated over. If you look at pederastic photographs of naked young boys in classical poses by Wilhelm von Gloeden, who was associated with the Uranians (and whose work I have earlier written about in terms of its influence upon some music of Michael Finnissy), you will see a similar thing. Certain qualities are favoured – looks suggesting arrogance but submission, petulance and self-centeredness, and sometimes exaggerated hyper-masculinity, absolutely nothing which would suggest an emerging mind or any trappings of an intellectual-to-be.
I have seen exactly the same attitudes at play regularly amongst those with power in the classical music world. Young men and women favoured to the extent they exhibit (deliberately or unwittingly) certain of these attributes. Some men because they look like a slightly thuggish rent boy, some women because they can give the right type of Shirley Temple-like sickly-sweet smile. Fundamentally, they become objects, and often the critics, administrators, radio producers and so on who favour them will abandon them as they get older, so they can move onto their next bright young things. This is all part of the same processes of domination of which sexual abuse of children is the most extreme form.
There’s a very obvious continuum, to me, between von Gloeden’s arrogant yet submissive naked boys and the picture of Gustavo Dudamel with a smug and self-satisfied expression, showing how his willingness to conform to the needs of others is rewarded with a Rolex watch. Similarly between Lewis Carroll’s pederastic pictures of young girls and some of the images routinely encountered of young female violinists. The same is true of the publicity materials and discursive constructions around numerous Wunderkind young composers and performers. The arbiters of classical music enmesh musicians into their own web in ways which bear an uncanny resemblance to the grooming strategies of paedophiles. I have even come to consider more sinister interpretations of the apparent innocence, suffused with unspoken desire, which I hear in works such as Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, possibly representing dances of naked boys (in part) at an ancient Spartan festival, at a time when the concept of ‘Greek love’ (love between men and boys) was very much in vogue in British and French artistic circles.
There were tyrannical teachers and educational practices which grew in the nineteenth century. It was seen as perfectly acceptable to beat students; teachers put them through gruelling (and generally useless) regimes of exercises so that the few who had not had a nervous breakdown or suffered irreparable muscular damage could feel themselves blessed and ‘toughened up’ for a musical career, in which they could inflict the same on their own students. Learning, practising, and music-making were made mind-numbing and conducted in an atmosphere of intense fear. In the educational culture bequeathed above all by the early Paris Conservatoire, the emphasis was no longer upon producing a rounded musician and individual, as in earlier times, but more simply a streamlined playing machine. But in many places these methods were found to be unsatisfactory in many respects and more mature and humane approaches began to take their place, which also often produced much finer musicians.
But then with the Cold War and the Soviet need above all to produce competition winners rather than rounded musicians, there was something of a backlash. Dictatorial approaches to teaching, with no concern for the wider consequences, came back into fashion. Some were aped in the West, crowding out some alternative approaches. Several of the specialist music schools in the UK – all of which were founded between 1962 and 1972 – were explicitly modelled on Russian institutions and styles of teaching, at a time when considerations of the welfare of children and the dangers of such hothouse environments hardly registered.
I have heard major allegations of abuse at all five institutions. The schools have certainly all produced some successful musicians, but if they are happy to take credit for these, they must also take responsibility for the ruined lives, sometimes racked by depression, self-harm, suicide attempts and more, which are equally their legacy. The effect of a school upon all who attended it, not just a small successful minority, matters.
Bullying and malicious exploitation of power in musical education are also rampant. Insecure teachers do this plenty. One of my own former students underwent some serious bullying at the hands of another teacher on a course, who tried everything he could to undermine this pianist by repeatedly spreading malicious talk about him to others, doing all he could to humiliate him in front of others (and before he was about to perform) and so on, because he saw him as a threat. Various people complained about the behaviour of this teacher, but of course nothing was done. This individual once proudly pronounced ‘I get students who think they are good – my job is to make them realise they suck’. This attitude is all-revealing – it is not about helping the student, but playing power games to bolster the teacher’s own self-esteem.
Other types of behaviour I have often encountered have deeply shocked me – just the callousness of it all. One privileged young composer thought nothing of fabricating false rumours about a rival, claiming he was being beaten up by his father, so as to portray this rival as unstable and thus unlikely to be up to being a composer. What has shocked me even more is how many people know this and other similar things about this person, but are completely unbothered by it – certainly it did not impede his own progression in academia. I know one instrumentalist who feigns friendship in order to gain other musicians’ confidence, so that they might reveal such things as spells of depression, which he then uses as malicious gossip to undermine them; another did the same when he found that one woman was going through a legal process in which she alleged her father had abused her. A prominent musician, upon being appointed to a prominent position, bragged to others that now he had the chance to get revenge on all those who had previously stood in his way.
Classical music and its associated culture is still shot through by some fundamentally hierarchical nineteenth-century values which are little in vogue any longer in other cultural fields. I am not saying we should throw out the baby with the bathwater, but do believe much rethinking is necessary. Sexual abuse in classical music is maybe the most extreme symptom of a wider corruption. When you have a culture which idolises a small few ‘great men/women’, sees narcissism, bullying and despicable treatment of others not simply as unavoidable evils but actually as signs of artistry, and encourages an attitude of awe and submission, rather than concrete and critical engagement, then the dangers of abuse are acute.
Whilst figures such as Beethoven or Wagner or Furtwängler or Britten continue to be idolised not just for the work they produced but for the personalities they were, then the role models for younger musicians are fatally flawed. We should reject entirely the idea that musicians are a breed apart, and discourage such thinking.