Accepting Music Theory’s White Frame: Now What?

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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.

This certainly addresses the problem of the way that Schenker studies can be distinctly cult-like, requiring precise observance of strict rules, delimited by the work of its founder. You can see in quite a few of the Lalala responses how Schenker’s own writings serve as core scripture, with the scholarly literature that has built up around it as forms of sanctioned exegesis, and how deep familiarity with both is deployed as a primary method of gatekeeping. You could paraphrase quite a few of the papers as, ‘Ah my dear boy, if only you understood the inner mysteries, you would see how wrong you are…’

But I worry that to rename the discipline to distance it from Schenker is a move akin the process of whitewashing that Ewell traces in the processing of Schenker’s texts for consumption in American universities. You can change the word ‘darkies’ to ‘voices’ singing soft and low, but a song will still stink of Dixie nostalgia. Just renaming it won’t by itself help to dismantle the White racial frame, but it could be part of a wider strategy.

Moving from worshipping a cult of Schenker to exploring a more ecumenical array of prolongational approaches could be seen as an example of de-scripting and re-scripting, as discussed by Stephen Lett in his response, drawing on a concept proposed by Madeleine Akrich. This is a useful framework as it acknowledges the way that assumptions for purpose are built into the tools we use, and also the way that users repurpose those tools to their own ends.

I recognised my own musical life in this account. I have never had the patience or dedication to become an orthodox Schenkerian - there were other things I wanted to focus on (as well as considering it a not particularly attractive club to join) – but there are many aspects of my musicianship that have been fruitfully nurtured by having both studied and taught his method. When exploring linearity in harmonic structures with a group of amateur singers just recently I took some glee in remarking that the theorist from whom I had learned these ideas would have deeply disapproved of the popular repertoire we were deploying them on.

The strength of Lett’s piece, I feel, is the way he recognises that the purposes to which we put our tools are always political in one way or another, and thus if we wish to rescript them we need to think about both their original conception and our own objectives. Otherwise we get the kind of partial rescripting that changes some of the surface detail but leaves the fundamental structure intact.

Richard Beaudoin tackles the issue of authority and gatekeeping head-on. Drawing on Clare Dederer’s analysis of the way that our culture routinely excuses the toxic behaviours of artists for the sake of their art, he considers how Schenkerian orthodoxy has constrained how we are supposed to respond to music theory, and, by extension, to music. Of course, people can respond at a personal level however they like, but the institutions of higher degrees, peer review, and the requirement to publish in the ‘right’ places to sustain a career ensure that only minor deviations from the prescribed responses are accepted into the canons of ‘acceptable opinion’.

One thing I really like about Beaudoin’s piece is the way he valorises personal response as integral to both music and music theory: ‘a great work of theory,’ he says, ‘”brings us a feeling”.’ One of the great myths of music theory is its objectivity, its lack of emotionality - whether that is worn as a badge of pride by scholars or used as an insult by practical musicians to those papery types who keep their heart out of their art. But pride is an emotion, and so are self-importance, competitiveness, and reverence. Indeed, Music Theory’s distinctive set of emotional registers comes into particular focus when you see its practitioners closing ranks against critique.

The most widely commented-on response amongst those broadly supportive of Ewell (at least in my social circles) has been Suzannah Clark’s. She goes straight to the heart of the central question raised by Ewell’s paper: to what extent do Schenker’s racist views affect his music theory? She works through a detailed example to show that ideological commitments Schenker expressed metaphorically in his musical writings led him to ignore significant harmonic moments in Schumann’s Dichterliebe because they didn’t fit the plan. His views didn’t merely shape his musical judgements, they distorted them.

I’m going to stop there for today because that is quite enough for one helping. Having at least partially digested some of the ways other scholars are building on Ewell’s work, I have a number of other areas to explore that are less specifically Schenkerian, but which have usefully come into focus through this extended case study. And Ewell has his sights not just Schenker of course, but on the whole discipline of Music Theory, and the forms of cultural capital to which it gives access.

*Robert Gross is my current hero for providing this handy summary of the whole set of responses. He has set a new standard in literature review I feel.

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