Musical Identity

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: Thoughts on Knowledge and Power

It is of course a cliché that knowledge is power. I have always thought about this in terms of why education is valuable. Knowing about stuff enables you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to; having more information allows you to make decisions that will fit the real world better and thus achieve your ends more effectively.

Philip Ewell’s blog posts on race and music theory, however, have shown me new ways to think about this truism. The generalised understanding still works, but Ewell also draws attention to ways in which the construction of knowledge within a discipline is a means to accumulate, wield, and confer power within the institutions that curate and validate knowledge.

I explored one aspect of this a few years back when reflecting on why it is so difficult to get women and composers of colour into the canon of western art music. I noted how our confidence as well-educated musicians is constructed through familiarity with its canons, and thus how it feels when we are asked to do engage with something unfamiliar: profoundly disempowering.

Reflections on Texture, Persona, and Sharing the Candy

When I joined the Telfordaires, the chorus repertoire included an arrangement of a popular ballad in which the leads had the melody, and, apart from a couple of short passages where the tenors duetted with them, everyone else sang ‘doo’ throughout. Members of the harmony parts had mixed feelings about the song. On the one hand, they recognised that it was very beautiful in performance and went down well with audiences (the Telfordaires really get their kicks from pleasing audiences), but on the other, having no lyrics to sing left them feeling a bit left out of the story.

I have been alert to the need to share the narrative and musical candy around ever since Sandra Lea-Riley commissioned me to arrange Moondance for Heartbeat with the memorable specification that they wanted a bassline that wasn’t just ‘all those damn dms’. So when I started to think about how I was going to approach another popular ballad I’ve recently been asked to arrange for a quartet, I went in with the thought that whilst the voice+guitar texture of the original lent itself beautifully to a melody+doo arrangement, I would find ways to move beyond this as the arrangement went on to keep all singers involved.

On the Astonishing Longevity of Minstrelsy

amosandandyI have been rearranging some of my mental furniture recently. It started off while reading Dreaming of Dixie by Karen Cox, a book which John Bush Jones critiques quite heavily in his account of Dixie nostalgia in Tin Pan Alley, but is actually in my view a rather better study. Mostly the reading experience was filling out my understanding of how mythology of the Old South was constructed through music, advertising, radio, movies, literature, and tourism between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

The bit that surprised me was how long blackface minstrelsy continued as a performing tradition. In my head it was a 19th-century theatrical tradition, and whilst I knew it appeared in films in the following century, I had always thought of those instances as referring back to the 19th-century practice.

Bibliography, Peer Group, and Framing

Back when I used to teach musicological skills to postgraduates, I used to encourage them to think about their bibliographical work in terms of defining the academic community which their work would enable them to join. The people you read to develop your ideas are also your ideal readers: your aim is to persuade those with whom you argue to adapt their views, and to offer something back in thanks to those whose work has facilitated yours.

Philip Ewell’s work on music theory’s White racial frame has got me thinking about this idea in a new light. This is how he opens his blog post on ‘New Music Theory’:

In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed adopts a simple citation policy: she does not cite any white men. Further, she speaks of how “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings”. Citations can also be antiracist bricks from which to create our dwellings. In citing an author we grant them legitimacy and authority, potentially turbocharging their worth to the field. Historically, the only authors who get so turbocharged in music theory are white males.

Accepting Music Theory’s White Frame: Now What?

In my previous blog post, I gave the background to the ideas I’m now going to start processing in detail. In this post I’m going to reflect on some of the ideas presented by respondents to Philip Ewell in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies* who took the line of: we recognise both that Schenker held racist beliefs, and that he considered his social/political ideologies to be integral to his music theory. What shall we do about it?

I’m going to start with Christopher Segall’s suggestion that we move the focus away from specifically Schenkerian analysis and instead think (and write, and teach) in terms of prolongational analysis. He posits that this opens up the field for a greater variety of theoretical voices (such as his example of Kholopov), while retaining the most central musical concept that makes Schenker’s work useful.

Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

The world of music scholarship has been unusually eventful over the summer of 2020, in particular North American Music Theory, but waves felt more generally as well. Readers not in touch with academic music may have seen some if it spilling over into more mainstream media, often in rather inflammatory and misleading ways, but if you haven’t, I’ll start with a quick account of what’s happened for context.

Then I’ll get my teeth into the interesting ideas that are the actual reason I want to write about this, not all the kerfuffle surrounding them. Still, if it weren’t for the kerfuffle I don’t know that I’d have come across the good stuff, so it has served a purpose.

So, the background. At the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference in 2019, Prof Philip Ewell presented a plenary paper entitled ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, which has subsequently been published in a more developed form by Music Theory Online. He has also worked through some of the key ideas with less of a specific focus on one form of analysis in a series of blog posts, which are probably more user friendly for readers not directly familiar with Schenkerian analysis.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 5

The first four posts in this series were based on a critique of the Myth of the Power of Singing I presented as part of my paper for a Choral Studies Research Day in Dublin last November. This final post moves beyond that material to consider some of the ramifications for choral practitioners ourselves, and at this time.

Choral Exceptionalism.

If ever we wanted confirmation that the Myth of the Power of Singing isn’t *just* a myth, the era of Covid-19 has provided it. Deprived of our regular fix of raising our voices with our friends, choral singers across the world are pining and grieving, fiercely missing the comfort and connection of the feel of that corporate sound around us. We didn’t imagine the joy – just look at the gaping hole it left when taken away from us.

But to confirm that singing in groups has powerful effects on participants is not the same as to say it is unique in its capacity to uplift. Singing may be wonderful, but that does not necessarily mean that it is special.

The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 4

The previous two posts in this series examined, respectively, the problems in using pseudoscience to promote singing, and the negative aspects of choral culture that the Myth of the power of Singing serves to hide. This post examines the issues the Myth presents for the scholar-practioner, creating a structural conflict between the two halves of the role.

The scholar-practitioner’s dilemma

The scholar-practitioner arguably always has a tricky line to tread. As a scholar they are committed to ideals of objectivity and transparency; as a practitioner they clearly have skin in the game. The prevailing narrative that singing is always and inherently a Good Thing amplifies this conflict of interest by eliding the distinction between practice and advocacy for that practice. The result is a tendency to build mythological assumptions into research design.

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