Thoughts on Music Theory’s White Frame: the Background

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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.

It is a splendid act of calling out a discipline that likes to consider itself above mucky things like politics, and it goes for the jugular in contending that the way the content of the discipline has been developed actively serves to exclude those who don’t fit the while male model of its gatekeepers.

As Jasmine Arielle Barnes said in a different musical context, when you spray a bug, it always has conniptions before it dies, and in this case, the conniptions appeared in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, a journal so niche that it still appears only in print format. I’m not sure when volume 12 came out, but it had circulated widely enough to cross my social media feed by the last week of July. It contains a collection of responses to Ewell’s plenary paper, and both the content and the circumstances of their publication have been a cause for some outrage.

The responses fall into two types. There are those that show evidence of having thought about Ewell’s points and are making an honest effort to see where Music Theory, and in particular Schenkerian Studies, might go from here. And there are those that basically stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to engage. I think of the two camps as the ‘Now what?’ Lot and the ‘Lalala’ Lot.

It is the Lalala responses that have occasioned the heat. Some of them are breathtakingly condescending while others boil down to a statement that the author has no objection to a more inclusive subject and faculty but that they’re not going to lift a damn finger to make it happen. As the Yale University statement in support of Ewell points out, they provide some rather thorough exemplars of the kinds of problem his paper had identified.

But I’m more interested in the ‘Now What?’ responses, as these make some genuinely useful contributions to things we might do to deframe and reframe Music Theory to detoxify it. Other people have taken on the Lalala responses effectively elsewhere, and my purpose in writing about the whole thing is to share my learning process in the hope that others might find it useful.

I seem to have gone on at considerable length already, though, so I shall leave this post as background and start on the substantive stuff when we can meet it fresh at the start of a post.

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