Monday, August 7, 2017

Reflections on Musicology in Academia

A few commentators have puzzled over why musicology in academia seems so impervious to criticism. After my little critique of their blog a few weeks ago, one of the editors of Musicology Now put links up on their Facebook page and I estimate about half of the 3,500 members of the American Musicological Society actually visited this blog. One would expect a host of comments and pushback if not actual backlash! But no, not a single one, apart from the editor himself, left a comment. This is how you treat what you regard as illegitimate or irrelevant criticism: don't engage! This is also how you treat madmen. So, as far as the AMS is concerned, I am something between irrelevant and mad. Well, sure, I could be! But I suspect I have many times the traffic of Musicology Now, which might be a problem for them.

What is the problem with musicology these days? I suspect it is one inherent in the way the humanities are practiced in academia. After your few general introductory courses (Music Theory 100, History 101, etc.) the trail leads inevitably to more and more specialized material. As soon as possible you need to focus on one or two specific areas. In the recent past they might have been things like a single composer, Stravinsky, say, or Bartók. Or perhaps reception theory or Beethoven's sketches. But these areas got used up pretty quick. You can't offer a dissertation for your doctorate that is in an area that has already been cultivated. So then attention moved to women composers, sexuality in music and so on. More recently it is turning to things like race, class and gender in opera, Cuban dance culture, Wonder Woman and, god help us, music in Pepsi ads. You can't study things like Haydn quartets, Mozart symphonies or Beethoven piano sonatas because someone else has already done that. Professors of music in university are so specialized that they are poorly acquainted with the basic repertoire. Because of this, people like me, who spent eight years in music at university, have the sketchiest knowledge of the most important classical repertoire. But we know our Cécile Chaminade and all about cultural appropriation in Madame Butterfly. In order to get a more comprehensive music education, I have had to spend a decade or two studying Haydn string quartets, Mozart symphonies, Beethoven piano sonatas, Shostakovich quartets, Stravinsky, Steve Reich and on and on. The fruits of a lot of this study appear here at The Music Salon.

So the occupational hazard of musicologists is that they are fixated on the fashionable areas of study of the day, identity politics, post-colonialism, cultural appropriation, the things that you have to be expert in to get your dissertation approved and achieve tenure, or even just get a job. If someone like me comes along and says, hey, no-one really wants to hear Chaminade because she is a boring, second-rate composer, then I am immediately categorized as "part of the problem." But, of course, I am right as the great majority of concert goers would agree. If you catch them off-guard  a musicologist might agree that, yes, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and all those other dead, white, European males did write the better music, but I can't think about that right now because I have to prepare my piece on campuses as sites of hate crimes and racist imagery for Musicology Now.

It seems as if all too many of the newer musicologists are, instead of being serious scholars, enslaved to a really nasty ideology, and one that prevents them from seeing very clearly what their discipline really consists of and what its job should be. Instead of revealing to new generations of students the great tradition of Western music they are holding "Teaching Under Trump" seminars:
Introducing the “Teaching Under Trump” series, Louis Epstein identified a central question that inspired the series: “what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment?” [emphasis mine] What if, instead, we asked ourselves what response was good? What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose? We might graffiti over those swastikas instead of walking past them. We might petition administrations to offer strong statements of support to our marginalized community members and to back those statements up with action—something Deaville did along with students in his seminar on music and disability. We might make strong statements of support in our own classrooms. We might offer assistance (tracking down legal help, providing connections to campus health resources, locating potential places of sanctuary) to students who seek it.
I feel very sorry for them, I really do. They are driven mad by will-o-the-wisps and believe their own "fake news."

Now let's listen to a musical antidote to scholarly madness. This is the String Quartet op. 20 no. 3 in G minor by Joseph Haydn, played by the Quatuor Mosaïques:

If you think that there is nothing more to be said about that music after Donald Francis Tovey and Charles Rosen, then I have news for you: you're wrong!


Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, they aren't giving you the "silent treatment," so be careful not to read too much into the lack of comments from your Musicology Now visitors. They don't say much on their own website either. They seem to be as trendy and pop-culture as we suspected --the traffic generated from Facebook inevitably brings an attention span that has been fragmented into literally fractions of a second, which you'll be "lucky" if they string a few together for you.

I think you're right that serious aesthetic study in musicology has been largely abandoned in favor of the transient attractions of immediate political controversies (and much of it, in my opinion, manufactured for mass consumption, some even consciously as a way to bring the "left" into the corporate globalization agenda that --to the benefit of a relatively small layers of investors, executives, politicians, academics and journalists-- is actually undermining the productive economy and democratic governance of most western countries that had strengths in those areas not so many decades ago).

Jives said...

"What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose?"

OMG, please, please do not do that, it's the proverbial road to hell, paved with good intentions. "Good" is a very slippery idea. I'm beginning to wonder if musicology is even a thing. It sort of 'came online' in higher education at the same time as Women's Studies, and all the Race-based Studies. And like those "disciplines" (heh) it seems to have no center or through-line. Just an echo-chamber of mutually reinforcing ideas expressed through the social justice filter.

Bryan Townsend said...

If that wasn't the "silent treatment" I'm not sure what would qualify!

Oh yes, Jives, the road to hell indeed. I'm pretty sure that there were more people killed in the 20th century by people who thought they were doing good than by people who thought they were doing bad! But no, musicology is older than that. It actually dates from the later 19th century and its first fruits were things like the Bach Gesellschaft and other collected editions.

Marc Puckett said...

Also, Cécile Chaminade may well be 'a second-rate composer' and 'boring' but the fact is that her music can be enjoyed and appreciated on its own merits without forcing it to do battle in some sort of academic ideological political combat. Did the lady herself think she was Mozart or Rameau or Lully returned to grace the stages of the 20th century? of course not. She composed for the concert hall, the stage, her piano rolls, was celebrated, flourished. But those people don't want to have to take the trouble to explain why Chaminade's works (or some of them, anyway) are in themselves beautiful, of value, in this or that respect-- because that is not where reputation and all the rest is made in academia, or in most parts of it. On the other hand of course I know very little about her-- perhaps she was a stridently political person.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, gee Marc. Now I'm not even sure what they are arguing on her behalf. I just keep seeing her on lists of Composers Who Are Unjustly Neglected Because Gender! 90 out of a 100 composers, or even more, don't last in the concert halls past their lifetimes. It is only the rare, unique individual whose music survives.

Marc Puckett said...

Hmm. Have been at work all day-- I failed to make my point, alas; sorry! Was trying to second the substance of your post, leaping onto a tangent, as it were, by criticising their nonsense-- presumably the woman Chaminade was sincerely interested in her compositions and music and only secondarily if at all committed to being a symbol of and figurehead for 'women composers' or 'women musicians': so they do her a double disservice, by making her into something she wasn't and, what is almost worse, by ignoring the pleasures and excellences of her music.

The truth is of course that when I listened to her op 21 piano sonata yesterday evening it was the first time I'd listened to anything of hers since the last time her name came up here (a post about women composers perhaps) but it is a happy thing, glistening surfaces and panache-- not Messiaen or Boulez, certainly-- anyway, the point is I've no particular enthusiasm for Chaminade but I do resent the ideologues who twist real, historical persons and their legacies to their own partisan purposes.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very good point, Marc. Thanks for clarifying. Yes, the worst thing about identity politics, and something that is rarely mentioned, is that it is profoundly immoral. Oddly enough, for people who purport to be so tolerant, identity politics ideologues severely judge everyone by their membership in a group identity. Chaminade is important because she is a Woman Composer, never mind the actual quality of her music. Beethoven is bad because he is a Dead, White Male European. Honestly, it must take an extreme amount of indoctrination to make people studying music in university believe things this absurd.