Whose Music Theory?

A 20-minute plenary talk boils over into music theory's biggest imbroglio in years. Allegations of anti-Black bias and anti-Semitism fly.

August 7, 2020
 
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Philip Ewell, left, performs.

Like many academic debates, one currently rocking the music theory world is esoteric. But the controversy -- about the legacy of the late Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker -- has grown legs because it involves accusations of anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism and, now, censorship.

Indeed, the University of North Texas is investigating its own press’s Journal of Schenkerian Studies following a recent symposium on whether Schenker’s known white supremacy pervaded his work. Graduate students and faculty members at North Texas and elsewhere have called the symposium racist and an example of editorial malfeasance.

The Society for Music Theory and Yale University's department of music have spoken out against the journal, as well. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meanwhile, is defending it.

“I didn’t expect this to make such a splash,” said Philip Ewell, an associate professor of music theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York, on whose comments the symposium was based. “It’s kind of strange to be in this position.”

In any case, he said, at the heart of the matter is “latent white supremacy.”

‘White Racial Frame’

Late last year, when conferences still happened in person, Ewell delivered a plenary address at the society’s annual conference. Ewell, who is Black, argued that Schenker’s known white supremacist views informed his hierarchical approach to music theory. The talk, in which Ewell referred to Schenker as “an ardent racist and German nationalist,” was part of a much longer, since-published paper on the “white racial frame” in music theory.

Ewell argued that music theory will only diversify through “deframing and reframing” that “structural and institutionalized” framework that Schenker helped build. He also pushed for a more diverse music theory curriculum. The talk was generally well received: Ewell enjoyed a standing ovation.

Soon after the talk, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, housed at North Texas, put out a call for papers responding to Ewell’s plenary. Music theory is a traditionally white, male-dominated field and Ewell’s comments -- underneath the applause -- apparently ruffled feathers.

Some of those who submitted articles agreed with Ewell’s plenary and asked important follow-up questions about how to study, teach and write about great artists and scholars who were not-so-great people -- or even those who have been called “monstrous men.” Others simply explained why they didn't see a link between white supremacy and Schenker's theories.

But some responses were highly critical of Ewell, even beyond typical academic sniping. One by Timothy Jackson, distinguished university research professor of theory at North Texas and a co-editor of Studies, was arguably the most critical of all: in it, Jackson seemed to accuse Ewell of anti-Semitism. Ewell in his talk did not discuss Schenker’s Jewishness. But Schenker’s wife was killed by Nazis and he likely would have ended up in their clutches if he’d lived past 1935.

‘Bringing Blacks Up to “Standard”’

Ewell’s “scapegoating” of Schenker and his intellectual descendants “occurs in the much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the U.S.,” Jackson wrote. Ewell “only attacks Schenker as a pretext to introduce his main argument: that liberalism is a racist conspiracy to deny rights to ‘people of color.’”

Beginning a series of sweeping statements about Black values, culture and families, Jackson said Ewell “is uninterested in bringing Blacks up to ‘standard’ so they can compete. On the contrary, he is claiming that those very standards are in themselves racist.” African Americans “have the right to embrace their own culture as precious -- i.e. rap music, hip hop, etc. -- and study and teach it in universities,” he added, “so that the products of the ‘defective,’ ‘racist’ White culture -- i.e. classical music -- be shunted aside.”

Jackson said Black people should set “different priorities” and that a “fundamental reason for the paucity of African-American women and men in the field of music theory is that few grow up in homes where classic music is profoundly valued.”

Drawing comparison to his own white family, Jackson said that classical music was prized by his own working-class Jewish immigrant grandparents.

The line of thinking echoes, to some degree, a recently retracted commentary by Lawrence M. Mead in Society that blamed long-term poverty among Black and Latinx families on their "culture."

Demanding the Dissolution of the Journal

Finding the symposium disturbing, a group of music graduate students at North Texas petitioned their dean to publicly condemn the issue and investigate its editorial process, due to the apparent “horrendous lack of peer review, publication of an anonymous response and clear lack of academic rigor.”

Going forward, the students also asked the dean and the greater university to dissolve the journal and discipline and potentially remove faculty members who used the journal “to promote racism.”

A majority of the music history, theory and ethnomusicology program’s faculty quickly endorsed the students’ petition, saying in their own open letter that “responsible parties must be held appropriately accountable.”

The “treatment of Prof. Ewell’s work provides an example of the broader system of oppression built into the academic and legal institutions in which our disciplines exist,” the professors wrote. “As faculty at the College of Music we must all take responsibility for not only publicly opposing racism in any form, but to address and eliminate systematic racism within our specific disciplines.”

The graduate faculty in music at Yale, Ewell's alma mater, said in a separate statement that it “rejects and condemns the racist and personal attacks on Prof. Ewell that appear in the most recent issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, and in particular the decisions by commissioning editors to include an anonymous critique and to exclude contributions from Prof. Ewell or indeed any scholar of color.”

The whole symposium proves Ewell’s points that “the white racial frame seeks to shield Schenker from unwanted criticism,” the faculty said. “Studies failed to meet the scholarly and ethical standards that we expect of our discipline.”

The Society for Music Theory executive board similarly condemned the "anti-Black statements and personal ad hominem attacks on Philip Ewell perpetuated in several essays included" in the symposium.

"The conception and execution of this symposium failed to meet the ethical, professional, and scholarly standards of our discipline," the board said. "Some contributions violate our Society’s policies on harassment and ethics."

Investigation

North Texas said Thursday that it is committed to "academic freedom and the responsibility that goes along with this freedom. This dedication is consistent with, and not in opposition to, our commitment to diversity and inclusion and to the highest standards of scholarship and professional ethics."

As for the investigation, the university said it appointed a five-member multidisciplinary faculty panel "experienced in the editing and production of scholarly journals." Members, who are all outside the College of Music, "will examine objectively the processes followed in the conception and production" of the issue.

"The panel will seek to understand whether the standards of best practice in scholarly publication were observed and will recommend strategies to improve editorial processes where warranted," the university said. The resulting report will be made public.

Speaking to the fate of the journal, the university said Studies has made "many contributions to the understanding of music theory. We will continue to offer music theorists the opportunity to share and defend diverse viewpoints under the most rigorous academic standards and ethics."

The ‘Cancel Mob’

Jackson did not respond to a request for comment. His lawyer, Michael Allen, said, “Please understand he is fighting to retain his job, his academic center, and the Journal of Schenkerian Studies that are currently under assault by a cancel mob. The stress has also severely affected his health.”

FIRE has defended Jackson and the journal, writing to the university that “While some may find the viewpoints espoused by the Journal or Jackson, or the namesake of the Journal itself, to be deeply offensive, UNT has violated core principles of academic freedom -- and the First Amendment -- by initiating an investigation into the editorial practices and decisions of a journal produced by graduate students and faculty members.” The journal should sort out its own internal issues, it said. 

Of the graduate students’ demands in particular, Samantha Harris, a senior fellow at FIRE, said in a statement, "If this doesn’t send chills down your spine, I suggest you take another look at history. Each of us holds views that someone else would deem controversial. If we don’t see our own freedom as threatened by this situation and the countless others like it, that freedom will perish swiftly and silently.”

Refusing to Be ‘Dehumanized’

Ewell said he values academic freedom, including his own, but he declined comment on the university’s investigation. He questioned the journal’s editorial practices, however, including the fact that he was not contacted to participate in the symposium.

“You can’t have a debate if you don’t invite one of the debaters to the debate,” he said. “If they had just emailed me, I would have said, ‘I’ll shoot you a transcript if you want, and you might want to wait for the full article, which is about six times longer than my talk.’”

Ewell said some of the participants in the symposium sent him their pieces prior to publication, and he thanked them for doing so. But the general push to publish was about other contributors “being incensed very much about whiteness being challenged by Blackness.”

Currently on vacation, Ewell said he’d seen some of “worst comments” being circulated online. He characterized them as anti-Black in that they express assimilationist but still racist views: that Black people should aspire to whiteness.

Ewell hasn’t read the whole symposium and doesn’t plan on doing so in the foreseeable future.

“I refuse to participate in my own dehumanization.”

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