Stop the World, I Want to Get Off…

The story was behind a paywall, so I didn’t read it, but the headline got me thinking. Apparently a professor in the music department at some university in England has resigned in protest at the retooling of the music curriculum to include the music of other cultures. He seems to have referred to this as “cancel culture,” which creates the impression that he’s a conservative, and I have no use at all for conservatives. There was also something in the subhead of the article about how the tradition of European classical music reflects imperialism.

There’s a lot in this to unpack.

First, it has to be acknowledged that the music departments in a lot of colleges and universities exhibit a strong bias in favor of European classical music, to the exclusion of almost anything else. This is a real and pervasive problem. The last time I was in a college music theory classroom (fifteen years or so ago), the students were still being taught figured bass. Figured bass was a form of notation shorthand used by harpsichordists in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Unless you’re either a harpsichord major or a musicology major, there is no reason at all why you would ever need even to know that it exists, much less how to interpret the numbers. But it’s still being taught. Conversely, at that time that particular college had no instruction whatever in music technology — no digital recording, no MIDI, none of that new-fangled stuff.

If you think the snobbery of the classical music establishment isn’t a thing, I invite you to gaze at this post (not behind a paywall), which details how a classical radio station refused to air a live concert by a leading violin virtuoso because he wanted to play an orchestral arrangement of a song by Jimi Hendrix. The station felt it wasn’t suitable for their audience.

There are, to be sure, colleges where the music department teaches modern technology. Probably more now than there were fifteen or twenty years ago. But if you’re entering college and want to get a degree in music in order to pursue a professional career in the 21st century, you need to inquire closely before you enroll about the biases in the department.

World music is a different thing. UC Berkeley does have a gamelan, I believe. Here and there you may get some exposure to non-European music (by which I also mean non-American-classical music, since American classical music is frankly European). But it’s hard to imagine that the theory instructors would in every case be able to communicate on the subject of raga, to say nothing of traditional Chinese music … of which I will say nothing, because I don’t know a single thing about it.

I’m not even sure there is a theoretical framework that embraces both European and Asian musics. Not only is the musical idiom different, the cultural usages and understandings of music may be very different. Just learning that a raga makes use of some particular subset of a 22-note microtonal scale doesn’t really tell you how the music would have been experienced by players or listeners in the pre-modern era.

And then there’s jazz and pop music. Probably most music departments have a jazz band. I hope so. But if you want to play prog rock, much less hip-hop, I’ll bet you’re on your own.

With respect to imperialism, it’s perfectly clear that the white Europeans actively tried to destroy the native cultures of the lands that they invaded. Whether Cortez specifically set out to rid the world of Aztec music is extremely doubtful, but when a culture falls apart, musical traditions are lost. And that sucks.

On the other hand, I’m not willing to look at Beethoven or Brahms as an imperialist. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven wanted none of it. By the standards of his time and culture, Beethoven was egalitarian. Yes, Wagner was anti-Jewish, we know that. But I don’t quite see how any music can, in itself, be anti-anything. Music is always a positive expression. Even Sousa’s military marches are positive expressions, in their own way.

So I don’t think it’s possible to blame European musicians for the ravages of imperialism. If that’s what’s going on in that professor’s university, he’s quite right to protest. And sadly, that scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility. There is afoot these days a tendency to dismiss and derogate the things white people say and do, on no better grounds than that they’re white people. If I like Mozart and a person of color likes John Coltrane, it can happen that the person of color might dismiss my enjoyment of Mozart on the grounds that liking Mozart is evidence of my unacknowledged “white supremacy.” This would be a grotesque accusation, but such things have been happening lately, sporadically but often enough to be troubling.

There’s also, I suspect, a trend toward the dismissal of music analysis. Postmodernism, which is still the vogue in some universities, will teach you that any response you have to music is as valid as anybody else’s. What matters is your subjective experience, and on that basis Sonic Youth is exactly as valid as Debussy. Postmodernists are entirely capable of dismissing the role of analysis.

Music analysis is a rational process, and I have seen rationalism being dismissed, by people who feel threatened by it, on the grounds that it arose in European culture and is therefore white supremacist. If rationalism is being attacked, why go to college at all? If you don’t believe in the value of rational analysis — of music or of anything else — please, just drop out. The college doesn’t want you, and you will never be happy there.

Bringing non-European music into universities is a fine and necessary thing. And yes, that will probably mean that the study of Beethoven and Mozart will no longer be the core of the curriculum. But dismissing the music of Beethoven and Mozart as exemplifying imperialism — no, if that’s what’s going on, it’s just bullshit.

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