Anti-racism

HALO on Race and Real Talk

HALOworkshopmar21Last Saturday the British Association of Barbershop Singers held a training event for its Musical Directors on diversity with a particular focus on racism, led by the quartet HALO. They have a well-developed programme in which they use the musical relationships within the barbershop style as a metaphor to help clarify various aspects of a productive dialogue about inclusion and race.

After presenting the core concepts and working through some of their implications, they use it as an analytical tool to tease out insights in the discussions between workshop participants. I came away with a sense of having some powerful new tools for understanding, and a deep admiration for their facilitation skills. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their workshops, take it.

Lenticular Vision as an Analytical Tool

mcphersoncoverToday’s post is reflection on a concept I learned from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie - which I highly recommend as a detailed and nuanced analysis of the meanings accrued by the American South from the mid-20th century through to the 1990s. If you’re interested in the cultural construction of nostalgia, there’s a lot of food for thought there, but today’s theme is specifically her central image of ‘lenticular vision’.

A lenticular lens is one that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles, and is used to produce pictures which change with changes in the position of the viewer. McPherson introduces this concept via the example of a picture of an old plantation house which from one angle showed the White people that owned it, from another, the Black people who serviced it.

On Schenker and Schenkerians

Sometime towards the back end of last year (I only happened across it in the last week) a group of European music theorists published an open letter in response to the events surrounding the Journal of Schenker Studies edition last summer about Phillip Ewell’s work. There are many aspects of it to raise an eyebrow, but I tripped over the first sentence of the second paragraph and got stuck there:

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago.

My immediate response to this was:

We were surprised that anyone objected to the Confederate flag being waved inside the Capitol Building, as the civil war finished over 150 years ago.

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.

Researching the Background to Your Music

Regular readers may remember how earlier this year Elizabeth Davies raised the ante for the project of relegating racist repertoire from the barbershop stage to the history books in her articulation of the Power of Boo. This prompted me into becoming more proactive into trying to ensure I never need to enact this power.

So, I’ve had an article about the problems with these old songs come out in both Harmony Express and VoiceBox over the summer, and on Monday night I taught a session on Researching the Background to Your Music for the LABBS eOnline programme as a follow-up to that article. I figured that if I’d drawn attention to a problem, it would be helpful to offer ways for people to solve it.

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.

Music Theory’s White Racial Frame: a non-Schenkerian Case Study

I have often told the story of the most useful thing I learned as an undergraduate. My tutor had sent me away to read any one of three books by L.B. Meyer and asked me what I thought of it. I said I had found it interesting but wasn’t sure I agreed with him. ‘Good God woman!’ he exclaimed, his fist pounding down on the desk top, ‘You’re not supposed to agree with books, you’re supposed to think about them!’

I don’t believe I have ever told the story of what it was precisely in Leonard Meyer’s Music, The Arts, and Ideas that I disagreed with, but I have been thinking about it a lot again this summer.

Several of the essays in this book develop Meyer’s implication-realisation model of musical meaning, first conceived in terms of gestalt psychology in Emotion and Meaning in Music, but now in terms of information theory. In the essay, ‘On Value and Greatness in Music’, he moves on from the processes by which music communicates to how one might measure the relative worth of such communications. Some music is obviously well-formed but trite, while some music touches us profoundly – can this theory explain the difference?

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