Do you need to study race theory before teaching musicology?

The terminology war in American musicology shows no sign of abating.

It has nothing to do with music, or music teaching, and all to do with suppression of free speech and ideas in many American universities. (I have experienced this at first hand. Once, when I addressed a group of US academics about aspiring to excellence in musical performance, I was accused – in knee jerk fashion – of elitism, and worse.)

John Halle, Director, Music Theory at Bard College, has entered the fray with a reasoned summary of events so far and a blunt assault on his colleagues:

At this point, it should have come as no surprise to have found leading “new musicologist” Robert Fink saddling up his high horse. His doing so rang a bell for me as in our exchange a year back he had charged similarly that my defense of the Minnesota Symphony workforce from attacks by its corporate board constituted a musical application of the “one drop rule” based on “the presence or absence of melanin”.

minnesota state fair

Whereas Fink was implicitly impugning my integrity by suggesting my alleged sympathy with a Jim Crow statute, his charge of “casual racism” against (Pierpaolo Polzonetti) is explicit. According to Fink, P’s description of rap should be seen as “the musicological equivalent of using the N-word.”

It should be noted that P escapes Fink’s full condemnation as these attitudes are relics, according to him, of longstanding white supremacist prejudices of the musicological profession.

Fink sees himself as having moved beyond his benighted mentors in this respect. Now he “winces on behalf of the tweedy prep school classical snob I once was, enthralled with Mahler and dismissing disco as repetitive trash.”

Read on here. It’s serious hardball.

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  • American musicology seems to have been infected by the Foucault virus, which is lethal. People die of it, without noticing.

    I sometimes wonder, how would a completely liberated society sound? I.e. a society, where everybody is equal, where all discrimination has been overcome, where hierarchy has been overcome and where perfect politically-correct harmony were established, and all parameters of humans treated with the same equalizing blessings?

    • John, all the humanities in American academia were infected by the Foucault virus (Derrida variant) decades ago

      Thing is, like the Toxoplasmosis parasite or the cowpox virus, the Foucault-Derrida virus can provide real benefits for many people – under the right circumstances. But for those whose defenses are compromised, the ill effects can be quite serious.

    • The American president has little to do with that. I hear racial healing in the United States is scheduled to take place 2-3 days after the Second Coming.

      • For that matter, Obama (whom I otherwise admire greatly) has given no indication that he has any use at all for classical music. Or art history, for that matter. This could be a matter of political expediency, because classical music is linked in the popular imagination with the likes of Hannibal Lecter or “elitism.”

        • To be President of the United States you had better have only one answer to the question “What kind of music do you like?” (amazingly put by CNN’s Anderson Cooper to several candidates during a recent, televised “Town Hall”)………………..that answer is “Country and Western.” Any other answer has you doomed.

          • To be President? No.

            To be the Republican nominee? Yes, probably. Although you likely have two (overlapping) options: country & western or contemporary Christian.

            Now that I think of it, Donald Trump probably doesn’t like either of those genres much – although I expect he’d cheerfully (if that’s the word) say he did if it got him immediate attention.

        • The current President and First Lady have hosted several classical events at the White House during their residence there. Those things don’t get much attention these days, but they did earlier in Obama’s term because it was considered (at least by classical music folk) a change from his predecessor’s tenure.

          • What continues to stagger me about Obama is the amount of free time he seems to enjoy; recently receiving a 100y/o woman with whom he appeared to be dancing; going out for a drive in a sports car driven by some mediocre “celebrity”, appearing on Ellen, ringing the mothers of America to thank them for being mothers on Mother’s Day. The kind of trivia about which previous incumbents could only dream. In short, all the IMPORTANT stuff. Late in the day he’s scrambling to ‘create’ a legacy.


  • Now he “winces on behalf of the tweedy prep school classical snob I once was, enthralled with Mahler and dismissing disco as repetitive trash.”

    After the grey hair starts showing up, one really should stop trying so hard to rebel against one’s parents.

  • I have nothing other than total contempt for the ideological bullying of Robert Fink and his ilk. However – addressing this directly to Norman – do you not think there is value in learning something about the history of Western anti-semitism when considering Wagner, or the Bach Johannes-Passion, or the life and work of Mahler, or Schoenberg?

    • Very interesting issue, Ian. It would not be the first point I would address, or the second in any of these instances. In Wagner’s, one must assess the scope of his ambition and the course of his political thought before considering the (considerable) role played by anti-semitism in his social outlook and, ultimately and to a much smaller extent, in his music. With Mahler and Schoenberg, the influence of their Jewish heritage is far weightier in my view than any putative impact of western anti-semitism on their lives and art. As for the history of a-s, all they were concerned with was its present manifestation, not its historical origin. But it’s too big an issue to address in a short comment.

    • Don’t forget, Ian, that the Bach St. John Passion is a somewhat different case from the others (notably Wagner).

      What people who don’t know much about the Gospels or Christian history don’t realize – and what Michael Marissen made a career out of trying to get across to them – is that nothing in the contributions of Bach or his librettist to the St. John Passion is concerned with Jews at all, let alone their guilt in Christ’s death.

      Rather the contrary. Bach’s music and the non-Gospel text make a point, as a matter of Lutheran theology, of attributing that guilt to the sinfulness of humankind, very much including the present congregation.

      Every single mention of the Jews in the St. John Passion comes directly, word for word, from the Gospel text. Any anti-Semitism in that work is the issue of John the Evangelist, not Bach. And changing the text of the Gospel was not an option for Bach.

      For present-day concert performances, changing the text can be an option, and I’m a bit surprised that quietly substituting in the word Menge or Masse (crowd) for Juden hadn’t become a regular practice, at least in North America, before now.

      • That is somewhat ingenuous, at best.

        If Bach had set the entire text of the Book of John, then you would have a fair point. But as soon as a selective approach is made to any text (Biblical or otherwise), a distortion of that text is made. Whatever Bach’s priorities were in his textual selection (liturgical, emotional, dramatic, contemplational) they inevitably portray the story of a man sentenced to death and executed by two groups (Romans and Jews, with differing allocations of blame) – in other words, a musical dramatisation of the Evangelist John’s account of the historical events. As a composer, with both solo and choral resources at his disposal, there is a clear case for showing the antagonism of the crowd/chorus towards the crucified man.

        The extent to which Jews are shown as the primary movers in the execution of Christ depends not on St John – but on Johann Sebastian Bach. In turn, this can be seen in the historic context of anti-Semitism in Saxony in the C17th and C18th.

        • But the Gospel text of the St John Passion has been musically dramatised… and no dramatisation is possible without the appearance of characterisation.

          In John 18:25, a passer-by asks Peter “Art thou not one of His disciples?”. One passer-by, and the question is asked once.

          But in Bach’s reading of the story, the single passer-by becomes a choral clamour of many voices, insistently repeating the question over and over, until the pressure of the situation becomes unbearable.

          Of course, this is baroque mastery at its finest. But in answer to the point made by MWNYC above, it isn’t an unvarnished rendering of the Gospel text. Instead it has characterised an entire community as a bad-tempered, angry and shouting mob. All done using the text of St John – and exceptional compositional skills.

          It is not true to say that any hyperbole in the story is from the Gospel. In Bach’s hands, a simple moment between two people in the street has turned the entire population of Judea into hysterical, baying mob.

          • I was thinking about the particularly dramatic double choir in Bach’s St Matthew Passion “Sein Blut komme über uns und unsre Kinder”, or “All the people answered, “May his blood be on us, and on our children!”” (Matthew 27:25). So reads the text, just take it, one cannot change it to satisfy one’s political agenda. Moreover, the Pope has formally forgiven the Jews for that very unfortunate episode. That reminds me also of the controversy about changing or not the text of Igor Stravinsky’s Cantata, but that is another story.

  • Don’t any of you people EVER get tired of America-bashing?
    Where is the empathy and concern for your fellow human beings?
    It’s not like the USA is the only country in the world with major problems.
    I would respectfully suggest that the time and energy you put on your comment postings be spent trying to improve, in whatever way you can, your OWN country.

      • The White House has been wanting to close the Guantanamo Bay prison since the beginning of Obama’s first term. But every single attempt to do so – including one that started just this week – has been vigorously blocked by Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress who find political advantage in stoking voters’ fears of The Terrorists.

        • The last Defense Department bill blocking the President from bringing prisoners to the US passed the Senate by a 91-3 vote.

        • Blah, blah, blah. Weve heard these pathetic excuses for the past 8 years. GIves you a great excuse for running a concentration camp, eh? No wonder the USA’s world reputation is bumping along the bottom.

          Wake up, MWNYC. It’s not Obama who runs this international SHAME – it’s your country, the USA. But you’re happy to wheel out the same old gutless excuses again and again.

      • Might I ask what country you’re from? I’d be happy to do a little research on what it’s done wrong and ask you what you’ve done … 🙂

        • So your ‘answer’ to running the world’s most notorious modern gulag is to try to find bad things other people have done… in the hope that all the prisoners you’ve got banged up and waterboarded in Cuba will somehow be ‘legitimised’ like that?

          But thanks for posting, Janis – you just highlighted the callous indifference your nation has to its own crimes.

          • Actually it’s YOU that continues to dodge the question of when you’re going to stop imprisoning and torturing people without due process, Janis.

            But I never expected an honest answer from an American.

            Thanks for the smiley you added in a reply about concentration camps – proof that you have no class whatsoever.

            Don’t bother replying, because snarky empty-headed nonsense only wastes people’s time here.

    • In Europe, it seems that musicology is in a comparable condition. For instance, any critical idea about musical modernism is considered a right-wing, fascistoid attack upon the status quo, and students are generously fed with ideology dressed-up as history, producing half-wit, musically-challenged people spreading through the organisational field of music life.

  • Just read the link and love the notion that an immigrant musicologist is guilty of being ‘entitled’. Anyone who has swapped his home country for another in order to be able to work knows that entitlement’ is not in the equation – it’s graft and more graft, then you might get a break, based on the hard work you’ve put in.

    In this PC world we all know it’s forbidden to actually make an accurate statement based on the evidence, but there you go. All power to you, PP, for your efforts and long may you prosper.

  • So where have you been for the last 10 or so years? Screaming campus garbage babies turning America’s universities into the world’s most expensive concentration camps, ideological enforcers from cesspits of pseudo-scholarship infiltrating formerly respectable humanities departments through joint appointments and then destroying them with their race/gender/orientation/colonialism obsessions, diversity drones in phony-baloney jobs in campus administration exploiting phonier-balonier fake “hate crimes” to silence dissenters and advance their agenda and only now you’re noticing?

    Or is it that all this is just dandy when the Grievance Red Guards attack the wrong sort of people (white male cishets, Christians, Republicans) but now that it’s working against your own profession it becomes a scandal?

    Your dismay would be funny if the situation wasn’t so tragic. And it’s not going to end until the last Gender Studies professor is strangled with the guts of the last Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Climate and the whole carnival of fools is burned to the ground. Maybe then we can start over with something better.

    • Phew: you must be feeling better now!! 🙂

      As I’ve said elsewhere, those things you mention ought to be named for what they are; the tics and cliched nostrums of many in academe – which are a sad indictment of intellectual laziness and/or torpor. Call it out! Slavish adherence to dogma and ideology in academe is the antithesis of inquiry and real thinking and has no place in a university. It assumes that everything is designed to suit an a priori agenda.

      • Geee ! here along I thought it was mother Russia where you must be very careful
        when crossing bridges…or a mothers ‘ angry reach under a London bridge .

  • I cannot see any attraction in tenth rate sociology wherever it manifests itself and especially not in an area like musicology.

  • Reading about this ongoing controversy, I cannot help but acknowledge that the Inquisition is still very much alive and kicking. Wry wit aside, the sad paranoid and hystetical state of the USA, not only in academe, has permeated all life everywhere in that country (Exhibit A: the presidential candidate selection – sorry, election – campaign currently on display).

    • I would actually come to the defense of the USA as we Australians are strong allies. Not everything they do is excellent and not everything we do is wonderful either. But I think the USA does a great deal better than a majority of countries on this planet. There are lots of things wrong with the economy and the fact that the people haven’t enjoyed a rise in living standards in two decades. It’s the economy, stupid, as they say. When mired in debt which is greater than 250% of GDP (and the US isn’t alone here by any means) then that will necessarily mean declining living standards. Always. Basic housekeeping and budgeting would tell you this.

      There are some fine institutions and tremendous intellectuals in the USA today, but it seems that the torment of political correctness has infected many; all this has sadly impoverished not only personal freedom to dissent but the tone of academe in general.

      And when we in the western developed world have had aircraft flying into one of our iconic buildings killing nearly 3,000 people only then will we be in a position to understand some of the things which have happened in the last decade. It was Harper Lee who wrote in her great novel, “you can never really know a man until you walk in his shoes”. We could apply this to the whole country – we who are outside it.

      • Actually we in Europe have enjoyed the pleasure of being bombed by our dear “friends” in the USA relatively recently – in 1999.

        It’s not pleasure we have yet forgotten. Nor will a few cookies smooth things over, as Mrs Nuland seems to believe.

        Perhaps if American musicologists bothered their little heads about the atrocities their country is committing worldwide every day, their credibility might be more than its present 0.

        • Same goes for mother russia and her atrocities – Mars is being quite selective to suit
          his purpose, one suspects he dare not comment about mother russia in the negative
          as he to might not make it across that famous bridge ….you know the bridge Mars ?

  • American musicology isn’t a safe space for me, so can I get some muscle over here now to make me feel less threatened by the dominant discourse and its privileged practitioners?

    • Great question. And the answer is………..(time’s up, sorry)!! I’m feeling hurt and offended now because you didn’t give me a trigger warning before your insensitive, racially motivated comments. Check your privilege please!! 🙂

      • You always assume that which is not …Mars is Mars you expect nothing of
        intellectual value …but it is fun at times to see what passes for intelligent thought .

  • I must have missed the previous exchange and am dumbfounded as to how Fink could say of Halle that “he is thus complicit with the slow death by lock-out going on at the Minnesota Orchestra.” Oh well. As one of the “considerable contingent of traveling fans” going to see them at Carnegie Hall next week, I’m too busy acting like a 50-something groupie to take any of this seriously.

  • Robert Fink. “Goal Directed Soul? Analyzing Rhythmic Teleology in African-American Popular Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64-1 (Spring 2011): 179-238. (Society for Music Theory Popular Music Interest Group (SMT–PMIG), Outstanding Publication Award, 2013.)

    Just sayin’.

    • And I’m writing a paper at the moment about ‘analyzing cognitive and culturally sympathetic teleology’ in the music of pre-schoolers who have been given toy xylophones and tiny drums for Christmas.

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