I wrote up a thread on Twitter yesterday summarizing the worst takes in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies Vol. 12, which responds to Phil Ewell’s plenary talk at SMT 2019 on what he calls Music Theory’s White Racial Frame. In this blog post I want to build on that by pointing out how many of the responses raise concerns/questions that Ewell already addressed in his keynote. Instead of referencing the keynote video, which is a bit harder to navigate, I’ll use his recent publication that is built on that talk.
In this post I’d like to highlight what I consider one of the most egregious failings of the issue: that so many of the published critiques were already addressed by Ewell in his talk and other scholarship (and for that matter, by other scholars too). Had these comments below been given proper review, their authors might have been able to frame their comments more productively.
On that note, here are some of the common points made by the responses and including quotes from various authors along those lines, followed by Ewell’s own words that have preemptively addressed these critiques.
Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist: Schenker’s racism as a product of its time
David Beach: “I do not offer any excuses for these comments, but I do want to stress that it is important to understand the contexts under which they—at least some of them—were made.”
Timothy Jackson: “Schenker’s many earlier anti-French, anti-British, anti-American, and anti-Black vituperations— before, during, and after World War I—must be interpreted in the context of that war and its aftermath, in which these nations were all perceived enemies of Germany and Austria, and of German scientific racism. Furthermore, it must be recognized that racist and genocidal thinking was common among German intellectuals from the late twentieth century forward.”
Anonymous (yep, really, a published anonymous response in an academic journal): “That Schenker, or anyone else alive during the turn-of-the-century time period, espoused racist views is completely unremarkable. For Schenker to have not, at some point, hold those beliefs would be truly exceptional.”
Timothy Jackson: “German scientific racism—with genocidal implications—had become ubiquitous in German culture by the beginning of the twentieth century, and one would be hard pressed to find educated Germans at that time who remained uninfluenced. Therefore, we should not be at all surprised that some of Schenker’s earlier statements decrying racial mixture reflect this mindset…”
Nicholas Cook: “What we can say is that Schenker believed in some form of cultural evolutionary’theory, implying that white people represent a higher stage of human development than the ‘more primitive races’ to which he referred. Clearly we would regard that as racist today, but the fact is that such thinking is found in a great deal of writing from the high point of imperialism a century or so ago; it wasn’t exceptional, in the way that the extremity of Schenker’s political beliefs was. The difference in worldview between now and then is something we should always attend to when we engage with the writings or more generally the culture of that period.”
Schenker’s views on race were extreme, to be sure, but he was certainly not alone. Hugo Riemann, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and many others on whose theories we rely all believed in German—and almost certainly white—superiority. … In fact, much of how we understand race in the U.S. is part of a global western understanding of race that is, in fact, written by white persons. It is therefore unsurprising that white Schenker scholars do not point out the racialized aspects of the man and his work in the same way I do as a nonwhite. And it is exactly these nonwhite perspectives on race that are ignored or glossed over in global race theory, as described above by Heng.Ewell 2020, par. 4.7.1
Unsurprisingly, Ewell is already aware that a lot of people were racist in the 19th century; the impacts of this should be scrutinized, though, and not ignored or excused.
#AllLivesMatter: Schenker wasn’t just racist against Black people, and Schenker was Jewish, so.
Barry Wiener: “When Japan prepared to enter World War I on the side of Great Britain, Schenker simultaneously reviled the Japanese and the English … In fact, Schenker condemned all of Germany’s enemies equally—including the English, French, Italians, and Anglo-Americans—as members of primitive races … As we have seen, for Schenker at the time, almost everyone on earth fit into the categories of ‘wild and half-wild peoples,’ and ‘primitive nations and races,” except for the Germans.'”
Timothy Jackson: “To be sure, the Great War provides ·the essential framework within which one must interpret Schenker’s earlier anti-French, anti-British, anti-American, and also anti-Black comments in his diary and letters. Indeed, readers of Schenker’s diary cannot ignore the extent and breadth of its author’s virulent, visceral hatred of the French, a white race…”
Timothy Jackson again: “On the contrary, demagogues from the extreme right and left, Black Nationalist-and also White Nationalist-and also in academe, continue to legitimize scapegoating ‘the Jews’ for every conceivable ill. In this sense, Ewell’s denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism.”
Nicholas Cook: “I am uncomfortable with a discussion of Schenker’s racism that doesn’t engage with the way in which racism impinged on his own life. … And we should never forget that Schenker’s wife Jeanette was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and died there in 1945; I suppose Heinrich would have shared her fate had he lived long enough. In short, Schenker knew what it was to be a member of a racially marked minority.”
One of the main goals of our white racial frame is to take the focus off of whiteness, and one of its main methods for doing so is, if the topic turns to whiteness, to immediately invoke other marginalized groups, thereby diminishing whiteness’s role. I therefore, with this work, focus like a laser beam on whiteness and how it manifests itself in our field. I look forward to turning my attention to how our white frame intersects with all marginalized groups in the future, but for now I focus primarily on whiteness—first things first.Ewell 2020, par. 1.4
Being Jewish or part of any other marginalized group does not excuse racism. Ewell notes that intersectionality is real and complex, but intersectionality isn’t meant to obviate critique of whiteness and anti-Blackness.
You’re So Articulate: Some Black Music Is Schenkable
David Beach: “My suggestion to Philip Ewell is that he stop complaining about us white guys and publish some sophisticated analytical graphs of works by black composers. I, for one, would welcome into the analytical canon works by both black and women composers.”
Jack Boss: “It seems as if Philip Ewell has portrayed Heinrich Schenker as arguing from the premise that musical works of genius build themselves out from an Ursatz through diminution, and reaching the conclusion that Black musicians cannot produce works of genius. [But we can use] the premises of Schenkerian analysis to lead to the opposite conclusion; that Black musicians did indeed produce works of genius, works which ornamented their structures in new and fascinating ways, and are worthy of our study.”
Allan Cadwallader: “I have spent my entire career involved with Schenker’s work, mostly with his theories and his analyses alone, marveling at the musical insights they can reveal about a certain repertoire. Let us expand that repertoire and celebrate diversity in scholarship and in the classroom.”
Timothy Jackson: “The great tradition of classical music includes Black, Jewish, and female composers, and remains, as Schenker ultimately recognized, an ‘elitism of the hearing of the spirit, not of race.'”
The first solution the white frame will think of to solving the racial imbalance will likely be to find examples by Chevalier Saint-Georges, William Grant Still, and Scott Joplin. But stocking our textbooks with musical examples by these black composers is not the solution to this problem, which is a result of framing western functional tonality as the only organizational force in music worthy of music theory’s consideration in the music-theory classroom. … The fact that many of the ideas from functional tonality appear in so many of the world’s musics is a direct result of the power of colonialism and hegemony. Thus, the problem of our white frame in our music curricula concerns not only the repertoire that we study, but also the music theories behind the repertoire.”Ewell 2020, par. 3.4
Ewell says that it’s not enough, or even really a solution, to make an effort to include Black musicians if we are still operating within a curriculum/methodology that is built to support white musicians first.
OK fine, Schenker was racist, but his theories definitely have nothing to do with that, so we’re good to go here
Barry Wiener: “While for Schenker, theory and musicology are tightly connected, there is no obvious connection between his politics and his musical ideas, other than the idea that some composers apply the laws of art in more creative ways than others.”
Steven Slottow: “Schenker may have believed at some points in the evolution of his thought that his various political and racial beliefs were indistinguishable from his music theory and analytical methodology, but his successors haven’t agreed, finding something very valuable in the latter but not in the former.”
Boyd Pomeroy: “The facts are not seriously in question: Schenker was a deeply flawed and conflicted character whose virulently nationalist and racist views are unpalatable by any standards. … But what of Ewell’s evidence for his claim of racism’s foundational role in the theory itself? It is, to put it mildly, flimsy.”
Rich Pellegrin: “Hierarchy is natural, often a matter of life and death, and is in and all around us—from the fractal, branching structures of our circulatory and nervous systems to those of rivers and snowflakes; from networks of paths and roadways to electrical, plumbing, and delivery systems; and from rhythm and meter in tonal music to harmony and voice leading. It is only in social and political systems that hierarchy becomes oppressive, due to the human capacity for abuse of power.”
Timothy Jackson: “Ewell argues, probably correctly, that Schenker would have objected [to moving his racist views to appendices rather than including them in the main text of Free Composition]. However, it is indeed possible—even desirable—to separate the technical musical-analytical aspects of Schenker’s theory from most of his philosophical, political, and aesthetic claims…”
Allan Cadwallader: “My point is that Schenker was a practical theorist who drew upon practical musical ideas from the past. To espouse their principles, and the repertoire from which they are drawn, is at worst exclusionary, not racist. I believe that John Rothgeb was correct in asserting that Schenker’s musical thought is ‘not at all dependent on any of his extra-musical speculations,’ despite what Schenker himself might have believed.”
Charles Burkhardt: “[Ewell] is quite right to deplore Schenker’s racism, but goes way over the top when he equates Schenker’s ideas on the inequality of the races with his statement on the inequality of the tones of the scale, and, likewise, equates white control over blacks with the Urlinie’s control of the subsequent structural levels. This is to confuse apples with oranges to an extreme degree. If Schenker actually believed such nonsense, he was simply wrong (and not for the first time).”
David Beach: “[Ewell] states that Schenker’s anti-black racism informed his theory. This is simply not correct. Schenker developed his ideas about musical structure by studying the music of the great masters (indeed a group of white guys!), and one of the bases of his criticism of music he considered inferior was that they lack what he had observed in the ‘masterworks.’ .So, his views on black music did not inform his theory; rather it was his theory that led him to view the music of other cultures as lacking.”
I feel that Ewell’s entire talk/essay is about the inseparability of racism from music theory, so allow me to quote several passages.
Colorblind racism is the most significant form of racism in music theory’s white racial frame and has been used for decades to dismiss those who wish to cite our racialized structures and ideologies. “What do music and music theory have to do with race?” is a common colorblind refrain, which accomplishes two goals: it allows for music theory’s white-framed theorist to appear to be on the right side of racism, while allowing the very same racialized structures, put in place to benefit white persons, to remain foundational in the field without appearing racist.Ewell 2020, par. 2.3
One of music theory’s greatest feats is its ability to sever its own past from the present. If some historical aspect of a theory is unseemly or unsavory, we typically bury it, and move on. What, after all, do political, social, and cultural attitudes have to do with the content of someone’s underlying theoretical thought? … To put this another way, to consider these theories ahistorically is to surgically remove all traces of racism, insofar as racist strains do nothing to advance the theories in question, all of which allows the white racial frame music theorist to reside in a music-theoretical Witness Protection Program, never to be held accountable with respect to the difficult questions concerning race and whiteness.Ewell 2020, par. 4.1.3
[Nicholas] Cook, in a parenthetical comment, makes it clear that he believes linking Schenker’s racism to his musical theories is unhelpful … What Cook means to say here is that it is unhelpful insofar as it calls attention to race—that is, unhelpful to music theory’s white racial frame. I, however, happen to think it is extremely helpful, in terms of understanding how we deal with race in music theory, to draw this ‘obvious parallel.’ Finally, I point out that Cook’s comment corresponds directly to white-frame belief that it would be inappropriate to critically examine race in music theory.”Ewell 2020, 4.3.4
The respondents claiming that we can easily detach racism from theory seem to be willfully deluding themselves and ignoring what Ewell said in the first place.
These responses are written by people with phds and long careers in the humanities, yet they have allowed themselves to remain blind to some of the most obvious problems with their claim. I am disappointed with several of these scholars for refusing to apply the critical thinking and nuance they use every day in their teaching and research to something as important as these issues are. In 2020, they should do better. I’m infuriated (but not really surprised) that our current climate of hyperawareness toward race in academia and in broader US society seems not to have prompted these scholars to reflect on their own participation in the white racial framing of our field.
If any of these scholars happen to read this blog post someday: please, reread Ewell’s article, and find your own arguments rebutted in it. You need to engage with those rebuttals in order to have responsibly held up your side of the bargain in this “scholarly exchange” (such as it is). Read some critical race theory. If you believe in anti-racism in other aspects of life, such as policing, housing, etc., try applying that to music theory too. Reflect on how Schenker’s own framing and our acceptance of it might lead to this issue and the entire journal’s editorial board being entirely white men plus one white woman (as far as I can tell; I could be mistaken); to Schenkerian conference programs and bibliographies being dominated by white men; to the music we spend time with and care about the most to be dominated by white men. Consider that maybe your defensive reaction comes more from personal pride and discomfort, rather than something more objective. Our growth as a field depends on our ability to critically self-reflect.
Thank you for this thorough, thoughtful and fascinating essay. I’m not trained in Schenkerian analysis—much less a Schenkerian—but found it interesting nonetheless.
I wanted to point out that the first two quotes you provided by Ewell, and the points that they support, were not in the original SMT plenary talk, which is what the responses in JSS were referring to.
I realize this. However, they’re also both points that are pretty obvious. Why wouldn’t Phil Ewell be aware that a lot of 19th-c. Europeans were racist? Similarly, “what about [insert other marginalized identity]” is another obvious go-to move to avoid confronting whiteness, and the reasons it’s problematic have been enumerated many times in many easy-to-digest ways thanks to the #AllLivesMatter movement. My point in this essay is that it was irresponsible for the editorial board to allow these commentaries to go through without acknowledging the substantial existing rebuttals to their main points. If they had reached out to Ewell, he probably could have provided an advance copy of the 2020 article that I quote here. The authors of the commentary owe it to themselves to acknowledge that their points are not novel or unconsidered by Ewell and others.
Seconding Megan’s point: they didn’t invite Ewell into the conversation, and that would instantly have led them to the MTO article. Ewell himself says that the talk was based on the article, not the other way around, so it was definitely in the pipeline. And it was published in June, before this JSS issue came out, and therefore with time to pull the responses if they had to.
Okay, Prof. Slottow (or whoever). That pedantic point would matter if it hadn’t been for the cartoon caricature strawperson of Dr. Ewell that almost all the JSS authors were trying to build up in order to knock down. Here, Prof. Lavengood helpfully allows us to see and hear and center the real Dr. Ewell so we can all judge for ourselves.
I am not a theorist, but I am curious as to whether approaches from social history of science are included in history of music theory courses? It seems to me this may do some of the work of bringing social theory, science, and music theory together into the same class discussion and begin to pick apart some of their tangled interrelations.
Obvi, thank you for the summary and sustained analysis you present here.
I can remember some times when it was. That does seem like a very productive way of framing this discussion in a classroom.
It was irresponsible for the journal to base these essays on Phil’s 20-minute paper, rather than waiting to respond to the article version. And not to invite him to respond, or even contact him at all. And to publish an anonymous essay–worse, to permit the craven cowardice of an anonymous response to bravely non-anonymous work. (Also, more trivially: to cite Wikipedia in what purports to be a serious academic journal, along with many other instances of shoddy and irresponsible scholarship.) All of this comprises serious editorial malfeasance, without even addressing the huge problems with content that Megan has so lucidly clarified above. Thanks so much, Megan, for this helpful post!
I can’t locate the journal-issue that provoked this response. I don’t find the JSS issue online, through my library site (they have through 2018 via RILM/EBSCO) or elsewhere via a Google search. Can some information be provided that would unlock access? Thanks. -Rick Cohn
It’s a print-only journal but a copy of the responses has been floating around.
Here’s a copy for you. https://drive.google.com/file/d/192shjnnNLqHX5ODIYA9nVyFDkMzEsS7X/view?usp=sharing
While I do not know enough Schenker to comment on the substance of Ewell’s argument or the responses to it, I think that this post and others like it operate under the assumption that critical race theory is the only possible paradigm for discussing matters of race in scholarship. I ask this sincerely: Are there ways to engage in ethical, anti-racist music theory without resorting to the language and framework of critical race theory, which – like critical theory more broadly – remains controversial to say the least? I suspect that many music theorists are skeptical of critical theory, and they are hardly alone. How might such theorists, who are interested primarily in conducting formal/structural analysis, do so in an ethical way without embracing a framework (critical theory) that is by its very nature skeptical of or hostile to such methods?
I’m not familiar with current scholarly objections or controversies with critical race theory, if you can elaborate on what the primary issues are.
I suppose I am really referring to the controversies associated with critical theory and the post-structuralist tradition more broadly rather than anything particular to CRT. Crit theory’s skepticism of the scientific method, reliance on storytelling/narrative, obscurantism, Marxist tendencies, etc. have for decades been the subject of reasonable criticism (as well as unreasonable criticism, to be sure). For music theorists wary of this tradition but still looking to root out racism in their curricula, I am curious what the path forward looks like. In the case of Schenker, for instance, is it enough (in Ewell’s view) for teachers to call attention to the man’s racism if they nevertheless proceed to teach his theory? If the answer is no, what does an ethical approach to structural tonal analysis look like (i.e. as distinct from (ethno)musicological and historical analyses, which have their own distinct scholarly traditions)?
Ewell addresses these questions in sections 4.6 and and 6 in his article that I cite here. It’s not about cancelling Schenker; it’s about acknowledging that he’s taken up too much room up to now, that it supports a white racial frame, and that we should make room for more approaches. I don’t think the critiques of critical theory you reference here have much to do with that.
It’s true that Ewell addresses these concerns in his essay, and his recommendations (e.g. clearing room in theory sequences for nonwestern theories, bringing in antiracist scholars, removing minstrelsy songs from curricula, being upfront with students about Schenker’s racism, etc.) are all good ones and shouldn’t be controversial. But I think it’s clear that Ewell’s argument goes further – he positions Schenker’s techniques as inherently tied up in the “white racial frame” that ought not be promulgated in 2020. By the overwhelming logic of the piece, we *ought* to cancel Schenker – it is actually not clear why Ewell believes we should continue to teach a music theory that has racism embedded in it at a fundamental level. The solutions Ewell proposes are thus curiously modest given the “radical reframing” he seems to advocate, and his skepticism of “solutionism” suggests that he himself suspects that his proposals will likely not achieve the change he believes is necessary. So I think some of the skepticism of Ewell’s essay is more about the broader implications of his line of thinking than the concrete steps he suggests.
Hi “A question,”
Critical theory (of the continental tradition mostly associated w the French) is not the same as critical race theory, even though the latter relies somewhat on ideas presented in the former. What are the “other” approaches to scholarly discussion of race that you propose? One that treats race as essentialized? Genuinely curious what you’re proposing might be the “solution” that would appease the authors in JSS who are wary of CRT (such an argument would also demand that we examine these authors’ other writings to see if they also object to other critical theories such as Actor-Network Theory, or ideas set out by theorists such as Boretz and Rahn).
I think it’s odd that you are criticizing Ewell for not calling for a “cancellation” of Schenker. To pretend that Schenker is the problem and getting rid of him will “fix” things is naive at best. What Ewell is calling for is a decentering of Schenker as *the only* way to do tonal theory at a certain level (my own musicology Masters degree required 1 Schenker class…not even Music Theory) and a reconsideration of how we present his ideas and theories. Teach his theories alongside readings that reveal how ideas about racial classification emerged at the same time as Schenker’s ideas, often by people moving in the same intellectual circles (eg the wonderful book by Rachel Mundy, Evolutionary Listening).
I teach minstrelsy still, and I always will when teaching American music. To “cancel” it would be to ignore it and pretend it never happened. I teach it in context, and show how it still has repercussions in so many aspects of American music and culture. We should do the same with Schenker: teach it as a racist ideology, and show how it has affected the music we study in American music schools.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I will respond to your points in reverse order, if that’s okay.
First, I believe you misunderstand my point about “cancelling Schenker.” I am not advocating for his cancellation, nor am I criticizing Ewell for failing to do so. My point is that Ewell’s argument here seems inconsistent. He argues that Schenkerian theory has racism baked into it – that the analytical tools are inextricable from Schenker’s racist ideology, and that their continued study “help[s] to legitimize harmful stereotypes about blacks and other POC.” But then, inexplicably, he says scholars need not stop using or teaching the theory. Why, according to Ewell, is it okay for theorists to continue to analyze and interpret music using Schenker if the theory perpetuates racist ideas? This apparent inconsistency is never addressed, and while it’s true that Ewell advocates for Schenkerian analysis to be “decentered” in pedagogy, how is this *practically* different from the recent efforts to “diversify” curricula that he criticizes? If scholars acknowledge Schenker’s racism in the classroom and decenter it, can they then proceed to analyze music using his theory as they have been? These are not tangential questions or picked nits – they are, I believe, at the crux of the disagreement.
On the subject of CRT: Subscribing to CRT tends to imply adopting an epistemological relativism and skepticism of logical argumentation that many oppose (even those who agree with CRT’s broad points about the pervasiveness of racism in our society). Scholars can (and do) discuss race using all of the sociological, anthropological, historical, and economic frameworks available without relying on the fuzzy language and science-skepticism of critical theory (and they can certainly have these discussions without essentializing race).
Beautifully written. The last two sentences really hits the nail on the head. Frankly, I enjoy Schenkerian theory and I genuinely believe that knowing it has helped me grow as a musician, but I understand that Ewell isn’t saying that I can no longer look at a Schenker graph and think “oh that’s pretty,” he’s just saying I (we) need to understand that graph’s relationship to institutional racism and (if we are in a position to do so) teach it as such.
Some of the responses are not like the others. Nick Cook quite reasonably objected to what he saw as Phil’s mischaracterizations of his work. Tim Jackson, on the other hand, well…. Having read the few good and the many (very) bad responses, the pull quotes in your post feel indiscriminate.
Thanks Dan—this is fair and I can see I didn’t do a good enough job contextualizing my own post. I’ve just added the following as my second paragraph to try to explain a bit better.
In this post I’d like to highlight what I consider one of the most egregious failings of the issue: that so many of the published critiques were already addressed by Ewell in his talk and other scholarship (and for that matter, by other scholars too). Had these comments below been given proper review, their authors might have been able to frame their comments more productively.
That helps! The weight of bad in this issue threatens to erase the bits of good (or at least, reasonable argument). Suzie Clark’s contribution shines!
I appreciate that! But I’d like to add that there’s something topsy turvy here. Megan quotes Ewell saying (in his MTO article) that one of my comments ‘corresponds directly to white-frame belief that it would be inappropriate to critically examine race in music theory’, and then refers to ‘respondents claiming that we can easily detach racism from theory’. Presumably she includes me in that. But it’s the exact opposite of what I think. My book The Schenker Project has a 19,000-word chapter arguing that significant aspects of Schenker’s theory were conditioned by and have to be understood in relation to Schenker’s ethnicity and contemporary racial hatred. In fact the whole book is an argument that music theory is part of culture and must be understood in the context of society, politics, and other forms of ideology.
Excellent article. I was looking for a good scholarly summary of the points and counter-points between Ewell and the authors of the journal symposium, and this presentation did the trick! SMT’s condemnation of the articles and the journal’s vetting process makes a lot of sense now.
One aspect of Prof. Ewell’s deployment of the White Racial Frame that I think many people are missing is the level at which racial and cultural consciousness enters into Ewell’s critique of Schenkerian analysis. The issue is not necessarily that Schenker was a racist and his racism seeped into his work, thereby infecting all who follow. One of the major problems with Western music theory in general is really in its ontology. Music theory began as a descriptive exercise, analyzing works of European art music as in, for example, Fux’s study of Palestrina’s voice leading practices. At some point theory became prescriptive in that it became the method by which Western musicians are taught to analyze and compose music. I think it is Beach’s essay that irritates me the most when he writes of the musical “masterworks” as if there is no other way to understand what constitutes great music. The White Racial Frame fully reveals itself in its privileging of masterworks from European art music as a priori standards by which all music should be judged. Viewed from this perspective, Schenkerian analysis is absolutely connected to Schenker’s views about Others – only music that follows specific pre-determined rules associated with a pre-approved canon of music is worthy of analysis and consideration of its worth. Moving beyond the White Racial Frame does not mean we need to abandon music theory as it is and start from scratch – we simply need to accept the idea that there are many other ways to analyze music that are not necessarily grounded in common practice tonal harmony.
Or something like that.
Yes. This is exactly how I see it.
The way I see it, the only problem with this type of discourse derived from racial studies is that it seems to be founded only on postulates that in the end cannot be proven, since they are simply not scientific. You want people to agree on facts that should be obvious, which is in many ways disturbing (i.e. ‘racism is bad’ , ‘we shouldn’t discriminate’). But this aside, the idea of focusing on the problem and for once trying not to dismiss it by seeking other ‘shields’ or divorcing the work from the person or real life is right & welcome yet … the only way to prove that a different path is possible or has been unjustly been ignored is to point that out exactly, to ‘battle’ Schenker on his own battle ground of musical theory. I don’t think it is enough to say “this has been ignored” or “we need to be aware that” and tear down great achievements of the past in any field. What is much harder to do is to build something to support what you say. The rhetoric of the racial studies is mostly insular and a cul-de-sac, asserting it is right simply because you cannot back out or you cannot debate it, or debating it confirms you are perpetrating something wrong. Do we really want in music the same academic discourse that asserts insane things like “punctuality in the workplace centers whiteness”?
Not sure I totally follow you…but music absolutely has many other analytical approaches and repertoires that have been proven viable beyond the study of European art music from 1650–1900. There’s only so much that one can say in an article, though—Ewell’s is already at 18,000 words.
Sorry english isn’t my first language. But in response I say then what is the point of Ewell’s discourse? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to promote other analytical approaches (especially now that there’s a huge variety of genres) to help erase certain barriers? My other comments were in reference to the fact that the rhetoric is wrong, since it is based on the idea that life is structured only in oppressors and oppressed (Gramsci), systems in place oppress and if you attempt any kind rebuttal or debate you automatically enforce such structures. I’m not trying to be rude but this type of discourse from the USA is alien to me in a way and I’m trying to understand
Ewell’s article is necessary and has had such a huge impact because his statements are true and the vast majority of music theorists purport to agree with them, yet the field as a whole continues to operate business-as-usual and hasn’t done anything to change. While of course it’s important to have change be the result of an article like this, this article’s scope is just to clearly articulate the extent of the problem. Ewell can’t change the structure of music academia on his own; it requires input from all members of the field. I don’t see it as dividing people into oppressors and oppressed; instead I see it as highlighting how everyone can and should contribute to changing the culture of music academia.
Hello Megan – Thank you for this terrific and vitally-important blog post. There is an awful lot of information flying around very quickly right now, so I wanted to make one comment regarding your inclusion of a passage from my contribution under the heading “OK fine, Schenker was racist, but his theories definitely have nothing to do with that, so we’re good to go here.”
I stand by the passage of mine you cited above. A little more immediate context would have been nice, but I understand space would not allow for that and trust that people will give my article a fair read. Let me just point out that much earlier in the article I wrote: “Schenker viewed the world through a hierarchical lens that was racist (and more), and . . . his ideology is closely connected with his music theory” (173–74). I absolutely believe Schenker’s racism is intertwined with his theories. However, I do not believe that that in itself invalidates his theories, at least with respect to the issue of hierarchy. This is because 1) Schenkerian theory does not minimize the value of the lower structural levels (the point that most of my article is concerned with); and 2) outside of social and political systems, hierarchy is not inherently problematic (as I state in the passage in question).
Thank you again for your valuable work parsing the contents of this symposium in terms of Ewell’s article.
Thanks for this clarification Rich. I can understand where you’re coming from certainly. Ultimately though, I think that the point of Ewell’s talk/article isn’t so much that Schenkerian theory and hierarchy is racist (which would be why he doesn’t say as much), but instead that Schenkerian theory is a useful exemplar of how racist structures are upheld in music theory. His position is clarified in 4.5.5.
Agreed. The most substantive points in the symposium—that the analogy between Schenker’s racist supremism and structural hierarchy (as in mapping music, anatomy or topography) is misconstrued in Ewell’s talk as literal, and that to do away with hierarchy per se is to negate all tonal music—remain unaddressed in this article. I agree with Ewell’s challenge and reject the elements of the symposium that try to dodge it, but to address the problem effectively we can’t gloss over genuine questions as mere bigotry.
Awesome–thank you, Megan!
Thank you for this very well written defense of Ewell. I read Mr. Ewell’s six blog posts earlier this summer and was very impressed and moved…but until today I was blissfully unaware of the responses in the JSS. Reading through them makes me want to gouge my eyes out.
I would like to stress a point that’s already been made, but is worth repeating. Using the megaphone of an official academic journal, with responses from some of the most prominent names in the field, all to quash one guy who gave a scholarly presentation and wrote some blog posts, is virtually the definition of systemic racism. It is an academic analogue to sending out a whole police department with military-grade weapons to crush unarmed black protesters. If anyone asks me to prove that systemic racism exists in music theory, I’ll just send them a copy of JSS.
Thanks again for fighting back.
Critical Social Justice is not about social justice at all; it has stolen social justice from the people who care about it and need it most. Why aren’t we seeing a critical reframing of this spectacle to note the authoritarian and Maoist response of the graduate students and fellow faculty member who sought to completely destroy the UNT professor?
Can you be more specific about the response that you have deemed Maoist?
Let’s look at the scoreboard.
The UNT grad students wrote a statement condemning volume 12 of JSS, and as a result the University initiated an investigation, not into Jackson himself, just into v.12. As far as I know, there’s no suggestion that he’s facing disciplinary consequences. There’s zero chance of him losing his tenured position. The JSS stance has been criticized by statements from Yale, the SMT, and others, but has Jackson been expelled from any professional bodies? I’m assuming the answer is no.
In short, he’s facing no real consequences. So, exactly how does this add up to “destroying” Jackson’s life? If people criticize you on Twitter, or they don’t want to sit next to you at lunch because you’re a big ole racist, your life hasn’t been “destroyed,” nor have you, as right-wing idealogues would have it, been “cancelled.”
Wow dude, you’re way off base here. Prof. Jackson has been criticized, not “completely destroy[ed].” I assume he’s an adult, so he should be able to survive criticism. Our American notion of freedom of speech does not say anything about protecting people from consequences they might incur when they say or do something obnoxious. And as for the consequences, he’s a tenured professor – he’ll be ok. Personally, I would worry about the UNT graduate students and junior faculty who spoke up. They are the ones who are vulnerable to professional reprisals.
Let’s be frank here: CRT from which Ewell’s paper derives is a sociopolitical movement that seeks a revolutionary change in institutions according to its, and only its, prescribed solutions. As the above poster Tdf noted, it refuses to engage with critics; any and all pushback is called out as using the tools of oppression (open inquiry, evidence and reason), and therefore unjust, and evidence of complicity in white hegemony. It refuses an evidentiary approach. Mere assertion is all that is needed. CRT and its activist variant Critical Social Justice uses deplatforming and spectacle in the same the Cultural Revolution did: public humiliation via outing (now in social and print media), and show trials now via awesome displays of twitter/social media violence in attempts to destroy individuals that dare to speak against its ideology. There are now dozens of examples of this around the country and the UNT incident was from the same template. The national SMT response was notable only in that it exemplified what has now become the classic “please don’t hurt me” response .
Blogger Hanfei Wang, whose relatives lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, has an excellent article on the disturbing similarities of the CSJ movement to the
the CCR. We need to wake up.
Are you really saying the graduate students writing their letter and UNT opening an investigation into the peer review processes used for vol. 12 of the journal is best understood as akin to public humiliation, trial, and destruction of an individual by a totalitarian government?
Megan: Yes, absolutely.
It’s news to me that peer review is required of symposia. I may be wrong. But that is beside the point. The investigation is/was an attempt at silencing and public shaming.
Jim Carroll and Steve Voigt, I did not say that Jackson’s life has been ruined, as you incorrectly state. I said that the response was an _attempt_ to ruin his life: take away his journal, take away his job, take away his social network. Deplatforming doesn’t get any more thorough than that. That’s equivalent to a show trial, because it has massive asymmetric leverage. Do that to just a few individuals, and you can proceed as you please. This was initiated by the students, and the pile-on from the faculty and administration was a telescoping of “please don’t hurt me” and an explicit illustration of my position. That does not minimize their complicity. That’s textbook totalitarian strategy and it is structurally isomorphic to the techniques used, just to keep with the recent past, by Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and etc. to keep “the people” in their.
I forgot to include the link to Hanfei Wang’s writing on this:
Maybe we can make this into a teaching moment. I’m willing to learn. I’ve read Ewell’s paper, seen the lecture, read the responses. I know Schenker theory.
I’d love it if someone here could present an instance of either of these two: where and how Ewell’s argument for pervasive racism in the music curriculum moves from mere speculation to affirmation, or, an instance of racism in the response of the Journal. Just one instance will suffice.
Indeed you are wrong—these submissions should still have gone through editors and reviewers (and as I argue, having done so would have improved the quality of these responses).
Please keep the facts in mind. His university is investigating the possibility that proper peer review may not have taken place, and graduate students wrote a letter stating their disapproval of the journal issue.
Wang’s blog post talks about the Red Guard destroying cultural artifacts, and forcibly deporting people to the countryside or to labor camps.
I don’t quite see the parallel between the consequences Jackson is facing and the consequences faced by enemies of Mao.
If Schenkerians are not racists, then why do they think that anti-racism proposals are an attack on Schenkerism?
It seems much of the confusion is that Ewell doesn’t make clear how one can hold the view that “Schenker’s racist views infected his music theoretical arguments…” and “…there exists an anti-black racism to Schenker’s work that remains underexplored, and this racism has infected and become integral to the white racial frame of music theory” while still maintaining “I do not suggest that we stop teaching Schenkerian analysis, or that scholars should cease their work thereon…” If Schenker’s racism has “infected” his theories and is responsible for the white racial frame in music theory, then there would seem to be no option but to throw out his theories altogether into the trash heap of racist ideas. Is Schenker’s racism separable or inseparable from his theories or not? Ewell ties a pretty tight knot between Schenker, racism, Schenkerian analysis, and music theory’s white racial frame only to untie them.
In answer to Jamie F: Ewell does not actually untie these things; he only suggests that they should be untied because they can be untied. People like Ethan Hein are untying these things. Hein teaches the standard music theory curriculum, but not as “timeless” or “universal”; he teaches it as the theory of an ethnic music of a time and of a place, which are a music and a music theory both worthy of study. For my own part, as a long-time critic of Schenkerism, I can at least concede that if Schenkerians would just teach Schenkerian theory as a convenient way to memorize scores and to make default decisions about what to emphasize in performance (and nothing else) it would be worth keeping Schenkerian theory as part of the curriculum. But that’s not what Schenkerians want. And while they will not offer any truly clear reasons why they will refuse to do that, I will offer a clear reason: to do things that way would undermine their unstated other purposes for teaching Schenkerian theory : purposes which, yes, are culturally hegemonic and, in practical terms, also ultimately racist, even considering Schenker’s own racism to be something totally aside.
@Joshua Clement Broyles. What makes this discussion tricky is we have to interpret three perspectives: Schenker’s own perspective, Ewell’s, and current Schenkerian theorists’. You are taking a somewhat moderate view on the first by leaving room for Schenkerian theory, at least in a modified or truncated form, but a more hard line view of the last. I think the problem here is, for me at least, the source of the dogmatism surrounding this issue. By taking a social theory and requiring that to be the primary or even sole lens through which we and all others must understand western music theory has deep, inherent problems. By reducing questions of art and music to social theory Ewell and others are, perhaps unwittingly, adopting a materialist view of art; art has nothing to say beyond the social. And please don’t misunderstand this comparison, but a purely materialist view of art belongs not to artists (and theorists are artists in their own right) but to more radical ideologies such as Marxism. Marxism has tended to look not only at history but also art through a purely social/economic lens. For Marx art is primarily about society; you won’t find much in the way of metaphysics and/or psychology in a Marxian view of art. Unless we want to go the path of something like Soviet Realism, we need to allow for theorists to look at Schenkerian analysis through other lenses besides the social.
That less than 5% of music theorists are POC is a scandal, especially after 20 years of trying to change it. As for Schenker, he took common practice compositional training, the hand copying of scores, into
a proof that music and compositional history stops where Schenker desires it to. The music theory Meritocracy is exposed as racist ( not to mention piano centered). That said, the question of musical hierarchies being inherently racist is still open for discussion as Ewell hasn’t codified his ideas on this–unless I misread him. I await his next article.
@Jamie Fiste : The social theory shouldn’t really be a necessary ange. Schenkerism, as it stands, and specific Schenker professors (mine, for example) are abusive in several other ways. The main reason I even bother to suggest ways to keep Schenkerian theory in the curriculum is so that Schenkerians can openly reject all those ways, thus prompting people to rightly question what the real point of Schenkerism is, if the stated point of it can be met by the modified means I suggest, but that just isn’t good enough for Schenkerians. I guess I’m sort of calling their bluff. Meanwhile, if you look at who is lining up behind Schenkerians to protect Schenkerism against anti-racism proposals, it’s mostly white people without music theory degrees. The public response from people with music theory degrees has mostly favored Ewell’s position over Jackson’s position. From this, it’s not unreasonable to think that this controversey really has less to do with music than it has to do with racial privilege. Or, maybe, like me, the SMT people understand that Schenkerism is essentially a huge scame even without the racism, and figure the racism is as good an excuse as any to finally shut down the scam. I’ll stop calling it a scam when Schenkerians finally define what they’re modeling. I would really like nothing better. But since they’re a bunch of gaslighting, racist charlatans, there’s not point in holding my breath.
It’s baffling and troubling that you (and many others, it seems) would take the view that a theorist cannot discern in Schenkerian Analysis a legitimate theoretical approach apart from some truncated form you prescribe without being a racist or charlatan, and that you would hold to this view so dogmatically that you assent to shutting down the “scam”. You know, Joshua – and to others reading who agree with him – why don’t you just come clean and admit you don’t believe in academic freedom?
@Jamie Fiste The charlatanry consist in that they will ultimately never actually say what their models model. For the last 20 years they have evaded my every effort to get them to define the midground objects as supposedly part of compositional grammar (Schenker says that’s not part of his theory), normal cognitive grammar (science does not support this), performance grammar (how is that , technically speaking, really even part of the score?) or some other thing (but what?). The gaslighty part is where someone like my Schenker professor lets someone like me pass a Schenker class and finish an MA only by agreeing to follow these instructions: 1) Do not apply to any music theory PhD programs, even though you won’t be accepted, 2) Do not ask anyone in the department for a recommendation, even though nobody will provide one, 3) Do not try to teach music theory anywhere, even though no one will pay you to do it and 4) Do not submit music theory papers to any academic journals, even though they won’t be published, and 5) Don’t talk about this set of conditions, even though no one will believe you. I have not followed these instructions perfectly, but I have followed them almost completely. Last year, though, my Schenker professor became better known as the guy Ewell says tried to convince everyone that Schenker was a “closet egalitarian”. So I guess not publicly contesting that statement for a whole year is close enough to publicing conceding the matter and forfeiting his own credibility; that and burden of proof should give me enough legal advantage if he wants to sue me for saying he did what he did. Meanwhile, did you even read the JSS board’s response to Ewell? Heavy on the gaslight. Look at it again. Schenkerians, much more than their critics, consider that academic freedom exists only for them, and academic accountability exists only for everyone else. When the dust has cleared, this will stand as a hard fact in the center of the matter. Academic freedom should not mean freedom to perpetrate fraud and no freedom to call out fraud. But that seems to be how you’re defining it here.
PROOF: Racism in Music Academia
The Open Letter:
JSS12, or the necessary part of it, at least:
Megan: It’s a remarkable quarry of didactic writing and thinking, ultimately beholden to the thought of another — a male theorist, Philip Ewell, with a theory himself.
To describe the musicology in terms of, “ Ewell’s article is necessary and has had such a huge impact because his statements are true ” — this is a really unusual intellectual argument because it isn’t one.
Truth in scholarship is not something that is so casually claimed on the basis of agreement, nor is it original thinking, nor ought it count for analysis and discourse among the authentic negotiations of race and gender in academia. It might be in protest and direct forms of activism, but applied sociology is not a virtue or value.
The kind of academic arrogance and superiority that you maintain, couched in mostly agreeable language, is offensive to critical thinking in this field or any field, and by now, in late 2021, you already know that CRT is ultimately a legal theory implemented in a graduate program at Harvard Law School, not a term to be bandied about relating to white/black/other binaries left and right.
This was a sad moment, the “cancel” element only appears in your use of it first, I believe, and the chilling of substantive critique is typically rejected on the basis of the “truth” you are quarantining for the agenda of race and equity in musicology. Those are areas that have sought and need to continually improve, without the erasure of mutual exchange beyond – “this is true”. That’s not and never will be actual scholarship over the years. That’s ideology trumping intellectual probity and exchange.
I don’t really know what you’re saying here; but I get the sense that you don’t find my blog post scholarly. Indeed, it is a blog post, and I’ve not submitted this to any journals because I don’t believe it to be the appropriate kind of discourse for a scholarly journal. (If only some of the JSS authors had made the same distinction!)
edit to add: you’re actually criticizing a reply-comment of mine, not even the post itself…yes, Internet comment sections are not typically representations of scholarly discourse. If you are interested in my scholarly writing, you can browse my research page.