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

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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.

When asked to include in the curriculum something of which you have no prior experience, you feel ignorant, ill-equipped, all at sea. This is uncomfortable at the best of times; for those who are accustomed to projecting their power in the world through their knowledge, it directly threatens who they imagine themselves to be. Even if you recognise in principle the validity of including something in the curriculum, it is very hard to say, ‘Yes, but I don’t know anything about that.’

And once you’ve resolved to include things previously excluded from what counts as ‘knowledge’, you have two courses of action. You need to do some new learning and/or you need to employ people who know more than you do about them to help out. Note that this is and/or, not either/or – both need to happen, and both can seem threatening to those invested in the existing knowledge/power structure.

Another aspect of the relationship between knowledge and power came into focus while writing my recent post about bibliography: how the canonisation of a core literature acts as a mode of gatekeeping into a discipline. Unless you cite those already well established, you don’t get published in places that will allow you to build an academic career.

And this got me thinking about how canons – again both in repertoire and theoretical traditions – serve to construct hierarchies in the institutions that maintain them. The scholars who bow down at the altar of Beethoven, or of Schenker, who uphold their respective places in their cultural and academic pantheons, thereby seek to acquire status in the field conferred by that association. They come as Moses with tablets of stone to explicate the intentions of the genius they worship to the masses, and therefore to take a place of leadership.

In practical terms, this means that competition and jockeying for rank with the sub-discipline is fierce, particularly amongst the up-and-coming generation of scholars, and that they soothe their status anxieties by patronising anyone who is studying the music of people they regard as ‘lesser’ composers. I’ve noticed this most in Beethoven studies, as I wandered through that world during my PhD years, but you get similar behaviours in scholars of the other big-name ‘greats’. Indeed, one of the things that seemed to irritate my postgrad contemporaries doing orthodox musicology, when encountering those of us doing research that wasn’t primarily composer-centric, was that they couldn’t work out where we should sit in the discipline’s implicit pecking order.

The discourse of both traditional musicology and music theory has been so obsessed with demonstrating the ‘genius’ of its objects of study because that is how those who produce the discourse assert their own smarts. They’ll tell you they chose the field because they love the music, and that will be true, because the music is indeed lovable. But you can’t help noticing how the fields centring on the top-guns seem to attract more toxically power-hungry types than other areas of our discipline.

Anyway, these reflections bring into focus why the resistance to reconstituting the content of our discipline can be so fierce. Those who have become well-established in its current form are not merely being asked to share their advantages; dismantling the canons through which they have become established is actually an act of direct disempowerment, both personal and institutional.

I know it’s easy for me to be ruthless about this because I have stepped off the academic conveyor belt in which my career depends on my publications. But I do also understand the vertiginous feeling of teetering on the edge of whole swathes of knowledge that you not only don’t have, but hadn’t hitherto even noticed was available to be acquired.

But, you know, we can get over ourselves. We ask our students to exercise the courage to step out into the unknown. Maybe we could set a better example here.

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