A warning of ‘the ubiquity in musicology of microaggressions’

A warning of ‘the ubiquity in musicology of microaggressions’


norman lebrecht

February 19, 2016

Schenker, oh Schenker, where are you now?

The president of the American Musicological Society, Professor Ellen T. Harris, has responded in the measured, meaningless terms of modern musicology to the lynching inflicted on Pierpaolo Polzonetti, when he reported his experiences teaching musical analysis in prisons.

Professor Polzonetti was subjected to every kind of politically correct abuse for trying to tell it how it really is.

Ellen T Harris refers to tell it how she thinks it ought to be, through the medium of self-censorship. Sample:

It is clear that there were aspects of the blog post that, although normative prose-writing to some, were heard by many readers as disturbing or even offensive. How often have each of us had the experience of seeing readers’ comments or reviews that understand something we didn’t intend or some relationship we didn’t notice. “How could anyone think that was what I meant?!” is something I have muttered often enough to myself. But one learns to think again and to clarify.

Most disturbingly, I have had private messages from senior scholars telling me about or quoting their students of color who express distress at the ubiquity in musicology of microaggressions (verbal or nonverbal slight and insults, often but not always unintentional) that leave them feeling marginalized and have led some to leave the field. I am reminded of the statement the late Charles M. Vest, President of MIT, made when he decided to publish the internal report on Women in Science (1999) that documented the “differences in salary, space, awards, resources, and response to outside offers between men and women faculty with women receiving less despite professional accomplishments equal to those of their male colleagues.” Vest wrote:

I learned two particularly important lessons from this report and from discussions while it was being crafted. First, I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance. Second, I, like most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior women faculty members. This also is true. They generally are content and well supported in many, though not all dimensions. However, I sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said “I also felt very positive when I was young.”

I ask that, like President Vest, we all become learners again. To become the open and welcoming Society we want the AMS to be, we all (authors and commentators alike) need to listen to one another, to think, edit, and revise.

Those wishing to study what is wrong with modern musicology, start here.

ellen t harris


  • Ian Pace says:

    Someone needs to write about the massive disjunct between musicology and the world of composing and performing musicians. An attitude of resentment and purported superiority can often be found amongst the former category. It would be nice to think more people went into musicology because they love music, rather than joining the hordes of academics dealing with art and culture whose primary motivation is to find ways to summarily dismiss a lot of it and gain some moral capital in the process.

    • DAVID says:

      You are absolutely right, and I wonder whether, even more disturbing than such “superiority” as you so well put it and which you are absolutely right about, is the utter (and rather paradoxical) disconnect of some academics from the very field they are allegedly studying. This makes musicology look like a completely insular, self-contained sphere which seems not to care anymore about that which they are supposedly concerned with — i.e., real music — and renders it a self-sustaining discourse which, precisely because it has completely disconnected itself from music, becomes a merely academic exercise (pun intended) and in the end a radically sterile enterprise — the exclusive occupation of a few obscure specialists ever confined to the walls of academia and, as another commenter put it, intent on remaining so — which might explain their utter contempt for anyone not belonging to their privileged class or lacking the proper decorum for engaging in acceptable academic dialogue.

    • Musician says:

      I have known many highly respected (by me as well!) musicologists who harbor a resentment because they are/were, in short, bad musicians. Often they begin their studies as performers and turn to academia when their lack of talent and impending failure becomes obvious. I don’t blame them, but this is often a chip on their shoulder that they may or may not be aware of. I am not questioning their intelligence or the importance of musicology.

      • Ian Pace says:

        There are numerous such people, and they often become born-again opponents of all Western art music, dismissing it in blanket fashion as imperialist, racist, sexist, elitist, and so on, and advocating things like hip hop (about which it is practically blasphemy to say anything critical in Anglo-American academia today) instead. All this really reveals is their own personal resentments.

        Students in particular deserve better.

      • Holly Golightly says:

        Or maybe, like the legions of trained musicians who don’t make the grade as solo artists or in professional orchestras, they turn to academe rather than take teaching gigs in schools (or at home)!! That’s an important job too! Either way, musicology has been fundamental to the period performance movement and in teaching us about great music from the past. Many have transposed medieval music into modern notation, just as one important endeavour. Who would not recognize the important work of ‘Robbie’ Landon or Stanley Sadie?

  • Frederick West says:

    Succinct,accurate, to the point and welcome. Thank you for putting it into perspective.

    • poooperaman says:

      The only perspective we need is that the good professor sought to broaden the horizons of these prisoners, while everybody else wanted to keep their precious high culture to themselves, and out of the hands of such low-lifes.

      That’s what everything they say boils down to – a terrible fear of people, especially the underclass, not being in their proper place, even if that means lifelong incarceration.

      • DAVID says:

        Exactly. So well said.

        • DAVID says:

          I forgot to add: this truly speaks volumes as to the utter hypocrisy of political correctness, which perpetuates the very prejudices it allegedly denounces.

          • Holly Golightly says:

            Political correctness is essentially 21st century bullying.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            ‘Political correctness’ was a tool devised by the Frankfurt School, to enforce adherence to their precepts and codes for the development of society in the 20th century.

            No-hopers like Adorno – incapable of a career as a performer or composer – instead found that the control & influence they sought in the Arts could be wielded externally – by achieving control over what was funded, patronised and commissioned. Such work had to be ‘politically correct’, or it would be shunned.

            Sadly this situation still pertains today – particularly within the European Union.

          • Ian Pace says:

            Eddie, could you give references to where in Adorno’s writings (or those of other Frankfurt School members), the sentiments and ideologies you describe can be found?

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Where to start?

            Adorno’s early writings are a pantheon of pоop – including his laughable attacks on Stravinsky.

            But – perhaps suffering from his displacement to America – it was in the development of Critical Theory (along with Max Horkheimer, plus Marcuse and Benjamin) that his real megalomania took hold.

            By the time he appeared at Darmstadt, the serious composers and musicians there quickly saw him for the preachy non-achiever he was, and he was effectively ostracised.

            Never achieved anything in his entire worthless life. A spoilt little brat who wanted to tell the working classes how to spend their time – yet never did a day’s work in his life.

  • MWnyc says:

    “measured, meaningless terms of modern musicology”

    Nice turn of phrase, Norman, but I think Ellen’s letter did carefully and well what it was required to do.

    Ellen is the president of the national professional association in her field. She has to represent her entire membership – Polzonetti’s opponents as well as his supporters and himself. And she went out of her way to praise – eloquently and sincerely – Polzonetti’s project. (See the second paragraph of her letter, which you did not reproduce in this post.)

    It may be easy for you or me or anyone else on a blog to react angrily to one side or another in this fracas, without thinking everything through or worrying about who gets offended by what we say. (Especially when angry headlines attract clicks.)

    Ellen Harris, in her position, cannot do that. Her open letter may not satisfy some angry onlooker’s thirst for vengeance justice, but it addressed the AMS membership as a whole quite well.

    – – – – – – – – – –

    As to why this argument got so nasty – well, as they say, the battles in musicology, as in the rest of academia, are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

    • Ian Pace says:

      MWNYC: Presumably, if Ellen Harris felt she need to give a balanced view by incorporating the views of anti-semites, KKK supporters and those who agree with Donald Trump on Muslims, you would be praising her for so doing?

      I think she would do better to resign, rather than give in to these bullies.

      • poooperaman says:

        Presumably, then, such ‘microaggressions’ are much more harmful than the macroaggressions of the Bataclan Muslims, the 7/7 Muslims and the 9/11 Muslims.

  • Stephen Graham says:

    He was ‘lynched’ was he? Nice choice of language in this context

  • Dr. Michael Lorenz says:

    Those really wishing to study what is wrong with modern musicology, read this. https://goo.gl/2d2m0e

  • Robert Fink says:

    Um, let’s calm down. No one’s calling for anything to happen to Prof. Polzonetti. Some people didn’t like some aspects of his public blog post. Last time I checked, when you write such a post, you accept that some people might not criticize it in public. Using metaphors of racial terrorism to characterize what a few humble academics said in the comments to a little-read blog, most of whom went out of their way to praise Prof. Polzonetti’s project before objecting to some of his language, is really unhelpful, to put it politely.

    • Ian Pace says:

      Robert, you know as well as anyone how serious an allegation it would be to say someone used the N word, but you accused Polzonetti of something equivalent. That is a thoroughly underhand bullying tactic to close down discussion, which I find reprehensible.

      • Ian Pace says:

        Furthermore, this tactic resembles that used by aggressive defenders of the actions of the Israeli government, by branding all critics anti-semitic.

  • Brian B says:

    The concept of “micro-aggression” seems to be rather a one way street.
    “leave them feeling marginalized and have led some to leave the field. ”
    Poor fragile beings. The field is better off without them. Welcome to the hurly burly of real life.

  • cherrera says:

    Musicology marries highly technical analysis with wildly personal conclusions.

    Ellen Harris provides a perfect example with her own book “Handel as Orpheus” which attempts to show, by technical analyses of chords and such, that Handel was therefore…gay!

    OK, ok, maybe Handel *was* gay (who knows, who cares), but does the technical analysis of musical notes really provide that concrete and elusive physical proof that Handel slept with another man? Really?

    That is the same problem with Polzonetti, his claim was essentially that if you understood the chord progressions of Don Giovanni, you would become a less violent ex-con. Really?

    • Holly Golightly says:

      All this tells me is that the vast bulk of the great work in musicology was completed decades ago – though there may be a very few who continue the legacy – and that the search for politically correct relevance to the corpus of art music is very fraught and tenuous indeed. I cannot imagine D.F. Tovey or ‘Robbie’ Landon, just to name two, worrying about ‘micro-aggressions’ or gender studies. Seriously, these people were just too busy doing great work to bother with social engineering.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      [[ that Handel was therefore…gay! ]]

      Yes, exactly. A pseudoscience, practiced by charlatans.

      Musicology has the same relationship to music that astrology has to astronomy.

      But it keeps them all in a nice living – and saves the poor wee dears from actually having to go to work.

  • Holly Golightly says:

    It fills me with admiration that an academic has taken his skills into a prison environment to teach about great music. My sister does that with English literature here in Australia. It’s a wonderful thing to enrich the lives of those who have missed the things which we all take for granted, introducing them to the glories of art music, even if a ‘captive’ audience.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    In years gone by, of course, we used to call this kind of excessive, baseless, sanctimonious verbiage ‘cant’.

    It was a neat way for the not very clever to find a route into academia, and a hiding place from the real world.

    It seems that not a great deal has changed. How very sad this all is.