The madness of musicology (part xcviii)

The madness of musicology (part xcviii)


norman lebrecht

August 02, 2020

Here’s another instalment, coming soon to a campus near you:

American Musicological Society Study Group on Music and Disability

Co-Sponsored with
SMT Scholars for Social Responsibility
SMT Music and Disability Interest Group
SMT Global Interculturalisms and Musical Peripheries

Call for Proposals

“Enfoldings and Divisions:” Musical Modulations and Debility
AMS/SMT 2020 Annual Meeting, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Thursday, November 5, to Sunday, November 8, 2020

What role do music and disability play in the histories, geographies, and politics of imperialism? How does music’s troubled relationship to bodies, senses, and minds, legitimize the disaster capitalism that perpetuates disastrous inequalities buttressed by white supremacy, white privilege, and, more recently, a pernicious liberal rhetoric that neatly sidesteps the work of dismantling these inequalities through empty forms of “inclusionism?”

Disability theorist Jasbir Puar argues that neoliberalism presses disability into the service of upholding and reinforcing white supremacy and privilege, through maintaining liberal racism and nationalist projects. In her recent book, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017), Puar observes that a focus on disability culture grounded in rights-based discourses and positive assertions of
collective identity cannot be considered without taking into account the imperialist and colonialist legacies that perpetuate global, structural, and material inequalities. Examination of disability cultures and disability pride must take place in the context of liberal empowerment discourses, confronting difficult questions about who is able to participate, and who is excluded. To echo her
phrasing, disability culture is “enfolded” into the liberal project of colonization.

As a result, Disability Studies has left mostly unexamined the ways in which debility, in contrast to disability, targets bodies for injury and maiming along geopolitical and socioeconomic lines. The global South, ravaged by the imperialist and settler colonial projects of the global North, is a world of bodies debilitated by the latter’s relentless, ruthless, and unfettered pursuit of wealth and power. Engaging with Puar’s “political” model of disability, this joint meeting of the AMS Study Group on Music and Disability and co-sponsoring SMT Interest Groups interrogates how the “social model” of disability reinforces Euro-American perspectives of musical culture…

Can anyone enlighten us what this has to do with music or musicology?
Jasbir K. Puar is a US-based queer theorist and Professor and Graduate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, where she has been a faculty member since 2000

photo: Rutgers



  • Larry says:

    This reminds me of why I decided to drop out of a Ph.D. program in musicology!

    • Brettermeier says:

      “This reminds me of why I decided to drop out of a Ph.D. program in musicology!”

      Well, you COULD just write your thesis about something more interesting. Like the impact of the drought in 1711 on the flute production in Voltaggio. 😀

      The things I’ve seen… The horror…

    • Matthew B. Tepper says:

      In my case, I left academe once I had earned my M.A. in Musicology … from the graduate school of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis campus!
      And one of my instructors there was none other than Susan McClary.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Poor liberalism! Attacked by the illiberal right, assaulted by the illiberal left. You know when you’re in the center when you take fire from all sides.

    And what is the phrase “music’s troubled relationship to bodies, senses, and minds” even supposed to mean?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes but I recognize that. When I listen to Xenakis the troubled relationship between the music and my own body makes me suddenly feel too fat & my bum feels colonized by an assertive discourse. And then it goes through my mind: am I being buttressed??

      But then I know it can as well be some corona.


    • Jack says:

      “what is the phrase “music’s troubled relationship to bodies, senses, and minds” even supposed to mean?”

      It’s just Foucauldian mumbo-jumbo.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      There is no illiberal right; trying to balance the books in this way is just false. This is called a “projection” and is mostly used to make it easier to criticize the Left from the Left. The Right is generally out making money, running business and creating wealth. And that’s the problem, isn’t it.

    • Day Radebaugh says:


      You let them off too easy. The sentence that contains the odious phrase you referred to is: How does music’s troubled relationship to bodies, senses, and minds, legitimize the disaster capitalism that perpetuates disastrous inequalities buttressed by white supremacy, white privilege, and, more recently, a pernicious liberal rhetoric that neatly sidesteps the work of dismantling these inequalities through empty forms of “inclusionism?”

      We call it “word salad” where I come from, or just plain gibberish. No one takes these unhinged polemics seriously because no one outside their cohort can understand what they mean.

      • Paul Brownsey says:

        Surely it’s obvious that preferring Beethoven to Britney Spears embeds an elitism that allows the rich to siphon off the money they acquire by exploiting the labour of the poor by embedding in the poor the conviction that, because their music is inferior, they, too are inferior and unworthy to criticise those who exploit them?

    • A Pianist says:

      You’ve got me. Maybe it’s another way of saying practicing is hard?

  • alank says:

    Send them all to a North Korean or Chinese re-education camp. These people are beyond demented. What kind of mind would actually seriously study the relationship between western art music and imperialism and consider that a scholarly activity? They hate the the evil capitalistic society that has provided them with a cushy existence in some academic bubble which charges the parents of their young protégé revolutionaries $65,000 per year. The evil oppressive system also typically gives them the summer off to visit with the peasant poets and artists of some Third-World communist dump like Cuba so the genius professor can pronounce those countries as morally superior to the decadent America because the inhabitants drive quaint 1950s automobiles, live without air conditioning and harvest their food locally. They then fly back to their beloved campus and write idiotic papers in the most abstruse language for journals that only they read. Time to defund these departments as they are vectors of mind viruses.

  • marcus says:

    “Jasbir K. Puar is a US-based queer theorist”. Not wrong there-bloody queer if you ask me. These people truly inhabit a very different planet to me.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    La maledizione!

  • Dragonetti says:

    Bitte auf Englisch?

  • More limitless stupidity. As Einstein once quipped: “ Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former.”

    • Brettermeier says:

      I prefer:

      “When you’re dead, you don’t know you’re dead. It’s only difficult for others. It’s the same way when you’re stupid.”

      (Not sure who came up with this one.)

  • AngloGerman says:

    Utterly inane… I feel ashamed for anyone participating in these ‘circle-jerks’

  • V. Lind says:

    This broad has really hit the victimology trifecta.

    Excuse my language, but, I mean, REALLY.

    Join the real world, you silly bint.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Rutgers. Go figure. They just declared that “writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds at a disadvantage”. Liberals dumb down everything they can…we all must be equal.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Every profession has its good and bad practitioners. Musicology is no exception. This blog systematically bashes musicology.

  • Callum Huseyin says:

    I suspect that the study will be looking at how in music, people with disabilities are treated as marketable goods for the entertainment for the able bodied, tokenism, if you will.

    However, I imagine finding out more might involve reading some literature, talking to an academic or whatever. Perhaps you could reach out in an non sarcastic way Dr Puar and ask her for a layman’s explanation rather than attempting to paint something you clearly know nothing about as absurd by virtue of your own ignorance. Then, and only then have you got the right to criticise.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Forgive my ignorance but what on earth is a queer theorist?

    • henrirenquist says:

      someone who doesn’t play a straight bat, obviously

    • William Safford says:

      Here is basic information on queer theory:

      And the related field of queer studies:

      The next question someone might ask: what is the relevance to classical music?

      I’ll toss off a few examples of possible applications of queer theory to classical music:

      – how Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality affected his life in 19th century Russia, and therefore his compositions
      – the prominence of gay and lesbian composers, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, and how that affected classical music
      – what happens to the careers of trans musicians during and after transition
      – the prominence of gays and lesbians in the audiences of classical music, especially opera, and their influence on the art.

      Just as a medical doctor might help music historians/theorists/teachers/etc. understand the effects of medical issues on the performance practices and performance issues of classical musicians (Leon Fleischer RIP), without him- or herself being a musician (although it can help), a queer theorist can help music theorists and others interpret and understand these issues as they relate to music.

      These examples barely scratch the surface, of course.

      • John Borstlap says:

        With classical music, the concrete personal and circumstantial characteristics evaporate in the non-conceptual nature of the work. Music is not ‘about’ the what, but ‘about’ the how, and in this way music becomes universal. Tchaikovsky’s worries become, in his music, everybody’s worries, disconnected from their sources. The importance and meaning of biographical information is very limited. So, ‘queer theory’ has hardly any significance for the understanding of music.

        • William Safford says:

          “With classical music, the concrete personal and circumstantial characteristics evaporate in the non-conceptual nature of the work. Music is not ‘about’ the what, but ‘about’ the how, and in this way music becomes universal. ”

          I disagree.

          For an example of this, look to Copland, and the reception of his jazz-inflected Piano Concerto.

          I quote from Taruskin:

          “One [critic] called the Concerto an ‘anti-human outrage;’….A third, pretending to excuse it, wrote that ‘some have complained that the work had no spiritual value, only animal excitement; but what else has jazz?’

          “This last comment points to an ugly undercurrent that now made itself felt in the reception of Copland’s music. The second time around, his jazz experiments evoked a racial backlash that expressed itself not directly, with slurs against the composer’s musical sources, but in the form of innuendos at Copland’s own ‘racial’ or ethnic origins….

          “Copland’s Piano Concerto is singled out for dismissal, since the participation of its composer, ‘ a cosmopolitan Jew,’ gave the Boston Symphony program in which he played the work ‘a more European, exotic flavor’ than an American one. The inescapable logic of Mason’s position was that neither a Negro nor a Jew could be truly an American….

          “Copland may have been unnerved by the backlash. Although, as we shall see, he certainly did not give up the aspiration to represent America in his music, he did discard jazz after the Piano Concerto. It was a conscious decision.”

          (Taruskin, “Music in the Early 20th Century,” pp. 621-623)

          In the case of Tchaikovsky, a case can be made that the circumstances of his homosexuality did not directly influence his music. You may make it if you so like, and it may very well be a valid argument.

          But for you to argue from the specific to the general is not supported by the facts.

          Let’s return to Copland. Taruskin focuses on Copland’s Jewish identity and heritage in the abovementioned example, but Taruskin later points out the fact that Copland was hauled before the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

          (Taruskin, “Music in the Late 20th Century,” pp. 107-109)

          Taruskin addresses separate issues from that of Copland’s homosexuality (i.e. Communist slurs against composers), but we can connect the dots from McCarthy’s rabid persecution of homosexuals, to the effects of that appearance before the Committee on Copland and his music. After all, this was about the time that Copland took up serial techniques.

          How can we connect the dots to the present? Well, the disgraced Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man in the McCarthy hearings was a lawyer named Roy Cohn, himself both a homophobe and a gay man.

          Who was Roy Cohn’s last protégé?

          President Donald Trump.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Too many scholars chasing doctorates in the name of scholarship.

    HINT: Study the masters and dig deep. Don’t waste your time with outliers who have had no impact on the history of music.

    But that has always been my problem with academic music especially here in the Midwest.

    Lots of tail chasing and no real scholarship of any value.

  • Ron says:

    Academia has lost its collective ever-loving mind. Glad I graduated in the early 90’s before they went bat sh*t crazy!

  • Old man yells at cloud says:

    These young people and their opinions! It’s an outrage! Positing polite questions and making inquiries into subjects that have never been fully investigated — how dare they! They’re taking over everything! An incompetent white male composer just can’t get work anymore. It’s scandalous! I’m glad that Norman is providing a platform for bigots like me to anonymously hold a five-minutes-hate for these people!

  • Harrumphrey says:

    So does the fact that Beethoven was disabled (deaf) cancel out that other musichiatrist’s diatribe against him?

  • William Safford says:

    For those who may think that there is no relevance in any of this research to the real world, ponder this.

    From above:

    “Examination of disability cultures and disability pride must take place in the context of liberal empowerment discourses, confronting difficult questions about who is able to participate, and who is excluded.”

    I now quote from Wikipedia:

    “[Thomas] Quasthoff was born in Hildesheim with serious birth defects caused by his mother’s exposure during pregnancy to the drug thalidomide, which was prescribed as an antiemetic to combat her morning sickness.

    “Quasthoff was denied admission to the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, owing to his physical inability to play the piano, rather than a lack of skill required for entry to the conservatory.”

    • William Safford says:

      My comment received four thumbs-down.

      I guess that four people support the rejection of Quasthoff by the Hochschule because he is physically incapable of playing the piano….

  • Jeff says:

    Simply unreadable…

  • anon says:

    She has no background in music. I wonder whether she’s ever heard a piece of classical music or read a book on classical music. Although for her, it probably doesn’t matter.

  • annon says:

    To be fair, how much can even a real, serious musicologist contribute to Beethoven, Mozart, Bach scholarship today?

    Imagine an American musicologist wanting to make a contribution to Bach studies, she’d have to master German, have access to German archives, travel to Germany all the time for research, learn German history and music practices, read 200 years worth of academic writing on Bach, all in the hopes of discovering something in a field that has been combed over for 200 years.

    So, what is left for an American musicologies to do but to expand the field to include things in her comfort zone she can easily publish on? Expand the canon to include Esperanza Spalding, expand the field to include race, gender, sexuality, disability, ecology…

    • Brettermeier says:

      “To be fair, how much can even a real, serious musicologist contribute to Beethoven, Mozart, Bach scholarship today?”

      There’s still a lot to do.

      “Imagine an American musicologist wanting to make a contribution to Bach studies, she’d have to master German”

      That’s pretty much true for any composer of any country whose language she doesn’t speak.

      “So, what is left […] to do but to expand the field to include things in her comfort zone she can easily publish on?”

      What happened to “We choose to go to the Moon […] and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”?

  • Terence says:

    It seems the oppressive caste system in India, and the treatment of gays & women in both India and Pakistan escape her wrath.

    Much easier to attack people from other ethnic groups, eh Jasbir?

  • Clevelander says:

    If anyone actually wants an explanation, I’ve looked into some of this stuff out of interest. I’m a liberal rationalist and not a fan of critical theories, but have been genuinely curious about what these people study.

    A lot of critical minority studies (queer theory, critical race theory, disability studies, etc.) have root in studying oppression from the perspective of the oppressed group, while doing this outside of the context of oppression and simultaneously empowering said group. It’s a mix of distancing from traditional sociology (which is viewed as hegemonic) and activism. Many of these theorists advocate self-determination and empowerment for these groups and oppose casual integration into liberal society.

    The intersection of these critical fields and traditional scholarly fields is of interest to theorists, because it allows them to construct narratives and theories as to why their particular group is oppressed and how they can advocate for greater representation and power within that field. From what I gather, the general gestalt of the narrative is more important than the individual factors of oppression: also, equity is preferable to equality as the idealized outcome. There are a lot of studies on the nature of idealized discourse, because liberal discourse is considered hegemonic and cannot lead to an equitable outcome.

    For example, disability studies usually questions the nature of “disability” and assumes it is a product of historic hegemony, while addressing the shortage of opportunities available to disabled people from that perspective, and considering how a community of disabled people would reach equity with the majority.

    The relationship between disability and classical music is a low priority of sociology or traditional musicology because it’s frankly not important to most people. A sociological study of these relationship would either be very specific or begin by considering every disability and every barrier to entry, which is time-consuming and probably irrelevant to science.

    A disability theorist would consider this somewhat frivolous and instead place importance on the experiences of disabled people who have a relationship with music, which aspects of culture have prevented disabled people from engaging with music, and what a disabled community should advocate for to achieve equity in the music community. I suppose this lecture will be along these lines, and possibly delve into some aspects of how this is similar to the black or queer experience in music.

    I find fault with critical theories’ inherent opposition to liberal discourse, overreliance on a sense of community over the individual, and seeming combination of scholarship and activism. But there’s no doubt that the heuristic jumps of these theories have come to some identical conclusions faster than rationalism, and it seems these people are here to stay. So I figure if you oppose these theories, it’s better to attempt to understand them and find avenues of constructive discourse, rather than lob aimless insults at them, which only strengthens their case.

  • Nick says:

    Young people have really nothing to do in life – smowflakes, lazy bums and parasites!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    People with disabilitiy can be helped by physiotherapists, by occupational therapists, yes in some cases also by architects who design ergonomical surroundings, or the like. However, who is hiring ‘disability theorists’ and ‘queer theorists’, and what good can they do for people with disabilities?

  • Doug says:

    How many years ago on this blog did I say that they will come for us in classical music?

    I told you so.

  • Lu says:

    This is an unreadable conference most likely written by some junior scholars so I won’t characterize it as typical.

    Disability itself is an interesting topic relevant to the practice, reception, history and theory of music. How Beethoven’s deafness influenced his composition, for instance.

  • Matthew B. Tepper says:

    As an actual, real liberal (credentials upon request, starting with campaigning for McGovern in 1972), I must remark that I consider the bulk of the above to be no more comprehensible than the verbal nonsense which issues from the Presidement.

  • Nijinsky says:

    To turn this whole “discussion” on its head, as to who is disabling who…

    Not that I know what it’s about….

    But this term disabled comes up, in regards to what “music” did…..

    In present psychiatric jargon, and prattle, regarding just about EVERY great artist who suffered through a life with enough imagination and enough individual will to leave behind what one finds in museums, on the concert stage, in the theater, in books of all kinds (poetry, philosophy, fiction) and then quite a few scientists as well, most of them have had some psychiatric diagnosis tagged on them that the general population is supposed to feel appeased with knowing that those “weirdos” had something wrong with them.

    Current psychiatric treatment, if you simply look at statistics, or if you don’t know where to find them read the book Anatomy of an Epidemic, you find that it has created such an epidemic of psychiatric illnesses suppressing normal responses to difficulties in life, or suppressing unusual responses not understood, or anyone talking about unusual occurrences or beliefs not held in general consensus, or imagination itself, or any kind of social or even political dissent, and that all such occurrences needing more drugs and more diagnosis after the initial period of suppressing “symptoms” has run its course; if current psychiatric practice, advertising itself as being able to fix all of the great artists, actually had been able to get its smiley faced grip on the art that by some miracle we are still blessed with, most of it wouldn’t exist, and instead we’d have a whole flock of disabled people walking around with the unsteady gait you see of those stumbling around drugged into such a disabled and marginalized state. This then in Western art in developed countries having such modern medicine.

    If there were any left, the metoo movement or the cancel culture might have stifled them. And if despite all of that there were any left, they would be used to herald a whole flock of great performers, none of them really caring to promote much actual live composers of these times, and again – given present fashions – if there were that much a lack of interest in the time when the music was written (I’d say back then when most of what is performed today was written any performer back then performed at least 80 to 90 percent music of live composers if not 100 percent, in contrast to in these times probably less than 10 percent if not less than 5 percent), we’d have at most maybe 10 percent of what was left, and then after forced psychiatric treatment, the metoo movement and cancel culture (along with corporate media politics) had taken its toll…. You might be lucky to have oh 2 percent of what HAS actually survived.

    I don’t think that say Shostakovitch was part of any imperialistic regime, nor that Mozart was a bad boy because he didn’t want to be Count Colloredo’s wound up puppet, or that Charles Dickens shouldn’t have tried to expose Scrooge and associated, or that in Romeo and Juliet one of the two rivaling clans should have been the winner with a chase scene where at least one car is blown up and the more moral heroic clan wins, or I don’t know what and then some more of it (Emily Dickinson thanks to miracle psychiatric drugs was a world traveler, became so famous that books of her poetry outsold the bible in her lifetime, and had 16 children with ten husbands, 7 of them [the children] becoming politicians, one of those becoming the shortest male president of the US and the remaining one – not being a politician for being allergic to having to sit in a chair for more than 10 minutes – becoming a scientist who discovered a cure for Rhinotillexomania where upon her fame became the label for yet another disease called Annedicksy the only disease no one was allowed to really know what it was or to diagnose others with unless one was in said academic circles, in said secret society and had never revealed the symptoms to any uninitiate (if that happened the symptoms would be changed lest they were recognizable to any but the select few) and every great historical artist that hadn’t yet been blessed with a diagnosis was given that one.

    And so you see, in regards who exactly is disabled……

    Were they yet?

    Maybe it wasn’t music that was the instrument of white imperialism, maybe it was air, or water, all three seem to just go anywhere without judgment on anyone. And they have no breaking mechanism, just like any child, none of which so far have popped out of their mother’s wound knowing what evil is and armed ready to attack it……

  • Andreas C. says:

    I used one of the neural network based nonsense generators du jour to complete the paragraph starting with “Disability theorist…”, with the first paragraph included in the input. Here’s what came out – it’s pretty much exchangeable with the original:

    “Disability theorist Michael Oat ley has argued that music can play an important role in producing the space for emancipatory consciousness in a society that “represents the very embodiment of the material condition of the disabled.” He offers a provocative framework for thinking about how music can be used to challenge the neoliberal hegemony of Western capitalist societies in the face of the global crisis of the market economy and the ongoing violence and terror inflicted on oppressed peoples. He argues that music can offer a means of generating awareness that can challenge the dominant discourse that makes deaf people, blind people, and people who are disabled invisible.”

  • Nijinsky says:

    This is quite puzzling, because if there’s concern about inclusionism that hides white imperialism, and all the rest of it, disabling, body maiming and the rest, how is this ever going to be addressed under such circumstances? In fact it’s more confusing to identify: inclusionism of those who are exposing inclusionism. That APPARENTLY sounds complicated enough that it seems like a real process leading to some enlightened superiority or intent.

    The famous phrase a Woman without a Man is like a fish without a bicycle comes to mind.

    Jazz theory, for example. What scientifically resonates more with one of the basic elements of music called the overtone series than Western harmony, this never came from anything but those who WEREN’T taught, and probably weren’t allowed to play an instrument, so had to find out on their own. Such nit picky fussing around about prickly things NEVER would have accomplished that, never allowed the people that did change the whole direction of music to have done that.

    Leave those people alone. It’s just music, that heals everyone, whether you want it to or not. And whether you’d want to see the bad guy tortured and punished, music still heals rather than maims. And it teaches people there’s another way that works, a way that doesn’t demand certain people need to have the right to coerce others with force and violence (the same ideology that the bad guys take on, which I think in desperation they got from those saying they are maintaining a society). You can’t wield the very thing that gets corrupted into what you say it’s supposed to fix. To make music out to be a reward for those who behave the way you find moral or whatever corrupts it. That’s like saying if someone is sick, only if they are healthy will they get the medicines that would heal them. And all the feeling of being in power because you played this game theory game isn’t going to change that, and there’s no loss to stop with it.

    And if the very same people, regardless which side they are on, did this kind of “directing” of people’s good will, you never would have what has made a difference, and stands.

    To take music that can heal someone’s soul, point out it came from negro slaves and then beat people over the head saying it shows how there’s white supremicism and you’ve tried to prevent the music from doing what its nature is, and degraded it to something its not and something it wasn’t intended to be either. It was intended to raise the spirit to heal people’s souls, not to judge them for whatever brain washing they were put under, and you’ve failed to check your own indoctrinations or how you get someone to take a second look at theirs. Let them just listen to the music and there’s a difference, and healing.