American musicologists at war over jailhouse professor

American musicologists at war over jailhouse professor


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2016

The row over Pierpaolo Polzonett’s account of teaching musical analysis in prison has spilled over into a nuclear war over the alleged lily-white state of American musicology.

Sample contribution:

I recall going every year to the AMS for the last 15 years and generally seeing a sea of white faces with very few people of color present and very few papers addressing race or music by people of color.

I recall the AMS List posts when Michael Jackson died.
A musicologist posted a post along the lines of: “I don’t know anything about Michael Jackson since I focus on art music…but no one seems to be saying anything about his death…why is that?” and then seeing responses that included, “Why should we say anything about him, he was an entertainer not an artist.”

But I most remember the AMS List posts of January 2011, when people on that list were defending Eggebrecht from the evidence that he was part of a Nazi unit that participated in the mass execution of 14,000 Jews in the Crimea during World War 2. And people on the list, and not just one person, defended Eggebrecht. People on the AMS List were defending a Nazi war criminal. Phrases like, “well can we really prove he pulled the trigger?” and most upsetting, “Well, even if he were a Nazi war criminal, that wouldn’t have an effect on his scholarship…I mean, if he had discovered the identity of the Immortal Beloved would we ignore that because of things he did in his private life?” or “Your private activity has nothing to do with your scholarship.”

People were defending a man they thought was an amazing musicologist who probably murdered 14,000 Jews.

These are people in the AMS.

Read more, many more, here.

kansas symphony jail




  • Gerhard says:

    Didn’t know before that a cross between a minefield and a snakepit could be reached so easily. In any case, beware.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    [[ American Musicologists At War ]]

    “And who, precisely, will *that* inconvenience?”

    (c) the computer Deep Thought, in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    Unfortunately the photograph doesn’t show musicologists, but actual musicians (carrying their instruments, presumably with the intention of performing).

    Most musicologists can’t play an instrument – and they certainly cannot play proficiently or professionally. They ought to be show arriving with a PowerPoint presentation about music.

    • jaypee says:

      Interestingly, most performers can’t articulate one relevant word about the music they perform. They ought to be show telling something that makes sense and can help other performers.

      Hey, that was fun! Let’s play that game again soon!

      • Eddie Mars says:

        As if you could articulate anything?

        More offtopic illiterate ranting. If only you’d had an education, eh, Pee?

    • Holly Golightly says:

      It is totally wrong to say ‘most musicologist can’t play an instrument’. Most have learned a musical instrument to a high level and this gives them the theoretical knowledge and understanding for their scholarly work. I myself know three musicologists and all are highly trained pianists. It is the unsuccessful, fully trained musicians – many of whom end up teaching in schools – for whom we should feel empathy. For every one of these trained there are 10 or more who do not end up working professionally as musicians – only as teachers. The musicologist has pre-empted this situation and decided to go with scholarship.

      All hail musicologists!!

      • Steven Ledbetter says:

        I couldn’t agree more with Holly Golightly. It is an old-fashioned view — once relevant perhaps but by now definitely passe — to claim, as the old saw had it, “musicologists KNOW everything about music but can’t DO anything.” Few, perhaps, are prepared to give a recital at Carnegie Hall, but a substantial number in my experience, quite probably the majority today (as well as some of the older generation of modern musicology in the mid 20th century) were and are quite capable of performing works that they also study from a historical and analytical viewpoint.

    • Jorge Grundman says:

      Mr. Mars: What? I am musicologist and not only play piano but actually I write music. Can’t be agree with your affirmation. Most musicologists not only play an instrument but study deeply the music history.

      But I am not agree with John Borstlap now, due I think entertaiment music can be a subject of musicology as folk music does. In fact, many of the classical dances started with a popular one.

  • Ian Pace says:

    See the comment from Chris Reynolds on that blog:

    ‘How then is the AMS supposed to effect massive curricular change in music departments across the nation? To some extent, the diminishing role of classes about European music has already been taking place over the last 30 years thanks to the rise of ethnomusicology and the advent of popular music studies. ‘

    That is basically the aim of many here (and many in ethnomusicology and popular music studies) – to bring about the terminal decline of teaching of ‘European music’.

    In the course of teaching a very successful Western music history module ranging from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, I have sought to integrate a large amount of popular musics (and not just as a footnote, but fully integrated) and loads about historical and social context. Sadly, this course will be no more next year, due to other factors, but I’m starting to think there is little point in attempting to effect such an integration. It would be better simply to have degrees in classical music on one hand, and ethnomusicology and popular music studies (two separate) on the other. And with different faculties.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Perfectly sensible.


      — I recall the AMS List posts when Michael Jackson died. A musicologist posted a post along the lines of: “I don’t know anything about Michael Jackson since I focus on art music…but no one seems to be saying anything about his death…why is that?” and then seeing responses that included, “Why should we say anything about him, he was an entertainer not an artist.” —

      Entertainment music should not be a subject for musicological research, but for anthropological and sociological research. No offence intended. Watering-down an art form to its cheap entertainment will erode the notion of the art form itself and open the doors to populism, which we see already all around us in the West.

      • jaypee says:

        “Entertainment music should not be a subject for musicological research”


        Oh, I forgot to read the full definition of the word “musicology”: “should only be dedicated to the music John Borstlap, professional troll and third-rate composer, deems valuable.”

        Got it.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Dear Mr Lebrecht!

          Is is surely not time that erstwhile member Pee’s commenting rights were reviewed – in the light of recent posts which have consisted entirely of offtopic personal attacks on other members – which are not only unwarranted derogatory assaults on their professional reputations, but which are furthermore of a legally questionable character.

          I am sure other members will not “miss” these vile postings.

          • Max Grimm says:

            If Norman banned everyone who engaged in “offtopic personal attacks” and “unwarranted derogatory assaults” on Slipped Disc, there wouldn’t be but a handful of commenters left at best.

          • cherrera says:

            The only personal attacks that NL removes are personal attacks on NL. I know, I’ve had many of my comments “edited” (offending passages deleted) by NL before he posted my posts. The house rule is, you can be as offensive as you want, just don’t offend the host 😉

          • norman lebrecht says:

            This is a privately owned site. If you don’t like the rules, please leave. As for the content of your comment, it is simply untrue.

          • Daniel F. says:

            I have, at times, been very tough on the blog-keeper but, to his great credit, he has never censored or edited any of the postings that have taken him to task. Nor has he ever taken down anything I have said about others. The spirit of the US First amendment is alive and well in this blog and all of should be very thankful for that.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          Like so very many contributors to the internet, this person is a serial troll with nothing of intelligence to say. Very sad for him, very boring and annoying for us.

  • cherrera says:

    Just look at the current composition of the Board, Officers, and Directors-at-Large of AMS. In this 21st Century, they’re stil all white, and only 2 are experts outside of the European (white male) classical music tradition.

    And the 2 experts on jazz and rap are…white men.

    Blacks can produce music, but their music is not serious until a white man studies it for his dissertation. Years later, white tenured professors teach black music to blacks.

    Nothing wrong with that, if black music PhD students were given equal encouragement to do research in, and equal access to, the Mozart archives in Austria or the Wagner archives in Bayreuth. Ever seen a black scholar in Bach’s archives?

    • Holly Golightly says:

      No, because I don’t care what colour somebody is when he/she is doing research on music. I’m sure there are studies about regarding Cajun music and African-American jazz – topics eminently suitable for study because of their pervasive influence not just on jazz itself but also art music.

      To treat popular music in the same course as art music is rather specious. I’d like to see popular music studied in schools for at least part of a term and then COMPARE and CONTRAST with the complexity and structures of art music. Perhaps asking the question, ‘what are the identifiable features which distinguish one from the other?”.

      Now, that would work!!

  • Tom Hartley says:

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that AMS members are equally dismissive of white popular entertainers. How did their response to Michael Jackson’s death compare to David Bowie’s?

    To make a distinction between someone’s crimes and his or her scholarly contributions is not the same as condoning the crimes, but is the Nazi’s musicological research really so valuable that it makes up for his monstrous acts? I doubt it. He should be remembered as a Nazi first and as a musicologist second (if his research is even worth remembering).

  • Janis says:

    I am so, so, so glad that I am not a professional ANYTHING in the world of music. I play, I write and arrange, and otherwise I just enjoy the stuff.

    It never fails to amaze me how something so simple and pleasant can be turned by the slapfighting howler monkeys that are Homo sapiens into a vicious cesspit of self-importance and tribalism. If we can start wars over blowing into hollow sticks and pulling on strings, does anyone still wonder why we can’t refrain from slaughtering one another over less trivial things for five goddamned minutes?