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John McWhorter Criticizes Philip Ewell

Philip Ewell has criticized American music theory for its "white racial frame."  Other observers have disagreed. The issue for discussion in this post is whether Ewell or one of his critics, John McWhorter, has the beter argument concerning music theory.

Liberal Black linguist, John McWorter has published an article on the excesses of cancel culture.  He noted that "woke" culture has gone from a diversity of viewpoints to a "religion."  You can find the article at https://www.dw.com/en/criticizing-cancel-culture-as-a-woke-author/a-59165136.

He also discussed the work of music theorist, Philip Ewell:

"The entire cultural canon is being reviewed through this simplified framing, points out the professor, mentioning one recent example: Beethoven was merely an above-average composer, according to musicologist Philip Ewell.

In Ewell's interpretation, it's only because Beethoven was a white male that we have come to know him as a "master" who wrote "masterpieces" — incidentally, terms which, as Ewell points out, carry "both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations."

These are all ideas worth discussing, said McWhorter. But he finds that "things get disturbing when it's no longer one perspective among many, but a religion." 

Anyone who does not agree with the ideology will be viewed as a "white supremacist" who deserves to be tarred on social media and excluded from the public sphere."

He continued, ""The Elect are the 'hyper woke,' or more to the point, the Elect are the woke who are mean," he explains, seeing them as part of a third-wave of anti-racism."  He added, "Third-wave anti-racism, which became mainstream in the 2010s, is actually for him a new form a racism."

He concluded that ""It is not revolutionary, it is anti-intellectual," says McWhorter. "We're being asked to abjure complexity."

 

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  • 25 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • Jofn McWhorter has a new book, coming out this week, which expands on the ideas set forth above: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America https://www.amazon.com/Woke-Racism-Religion-Betrayed-America/dp/0593423062/ref=rvi_4/139-1015686-8465214?pd_rd_w=9n3Yh&pf_rd_p=c0296674-5a83-4ad6-b035-0702d2b359df&pf_rd_r=4R4T4PXFHA4W4RSKD7RJ&pd_rd_r=5273e007-527c-4796-9c62-4b9bfd9ddbc9&pd_rd_wg=o5Jq1&pd_rd_i=0593423062&psc=1

    "In Woke Racism, McWhorter reveals the workings of this new religion, from the original sin of “white privilege” and the weaponization of cancel culture to ban heretics, to the evangelical fervor of the “woke mob.” He shows how this religion that claims to “dismantle racist structures” is actually harming his fellow Black Americans by infantilizing Black people, setting Black students up for failure, and passing policies that disproportionately damage Black communities. The new religion might be called “antiracism,” but it features a racial essentialism that’s barely distinguishable from racist arguments of the past." https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/696856/woke-racism-by-john-mcwhorter/

    From a review: "Flying in the face of mainstream liberal orthodoxy, McWhorter writes in unapologetic opposition to the brand of anti-racism that authors like Ibram X. Kendi [and Philip Ewell] and Robin DiAngelo have made so popular in recent years. At the core of McWhorter’s critique is his claim that wokism (or “Electism,” as he wants us to call it) has literally become a religion. It demands adherence to positions that one must accept on faith or else be treated as heretical (i.e., “problematic”). McWhorter is well aware that his arguments may be dismissed out of hand, but he is cogent and forthright in his discussions. “You see Third Wave antiracism telling you that you are morally bound to conceive of ordinary statements that once were thought of as progressive, like ‘I don’t see color,’ as racist,” he writes. “That if you are white you are to despise yourself as tainted permanently by ‘white privilege’ in everything you do.”https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/john-mcwhorter/woke-racism/

     

  • Frankly, I shouldn't be giving this post any attention, but I also do not want it to go unchallenged in this forum.

    With all due respect to Dr. McWorter, the comments he's made clearly shows that he does not fully understand even the basics of Dr. Ewell's comments, nor is well-versed in music (either from a historical or theoretical perspective) to lodge a significant criticism. 

    First, that specific comment regarding Beethoven from Dr. Ewell is woefully missing the meaningful context that led to that comment. He's clearly latching onto one sentence - a "hot take" you might say - without actually engaging in the underlying argument. Second, Dr. Ewell in that very same article clearly states:

    Beethoven was undoubtedly an above-average composer and he deserves our attention. (Ewell, 2020)

    As far as I'm concerned, that is the opposite of cancel culture.

    But to say he was anything more is to dismiss 99.9% of the world’s music written 200+ years ago, which would be unscholarly, and academically irresponsible. (Ewell, 2020)

    Ah, and this sounds a lot like the real cancel culture that's happened by our laser-focus on a small subset of composers, propogating narratives that were crafted in many cases to advance German nationalism. This is really not disputed and anyone who wants to take issue with that is ignoring a superabundance of very overt claims by the composers, music critics, and scholars over the last two centuries.

    To turn Dr. McWorter's own words on his argument: "It is not revolutionary, it is anti-intellectual." 

    And so, for me and the sake of the SMT community, I implore you that you actually revisit Dr. Ewell's work and actually spend the necessary time reading and understanding the argument he's making. It's clear you don't understand the his arguments, have latched onto a few "hot takes" and then twisted those takes into whatever preconceived ideas and biases you have on this matter.

    Devin Chaloux

    Indiana University

  • Nicolas said:

    ; No. The whole history of music composition since the Ninth has been marked by how composers positioned themselves with respect to it, and this has nothing to do with German nationalism.

    The WHOLE HISTORY of music composition (like, in the WHOLE WORLD)? I'd be interested in hearing how the composers of Beijing opera in the 19th century were positioning themselves in response to Beethoven, or do they not count?
  • Nicolas said:

    Why do you mention "composers of Beijing opera in the 19th century"?

    Meeely to highlight the fact that there is a much wider range of music created since Beethoven's 9th that was largely unaffected by its composition. Why ignore this music when speaking of "the whole history" of music composition?
  • Nicolas said:

    When I mentioned the history of music composition after Beethoven, I obviously meant Western music composition.

    Wait, why is that obvious? It certainly wasn't obvious to me. Why do you think that's the obvious interpretation of "whole history"?
  • It seems like a bit of an overstatement to say that McWhorter criticizes Ewell. He uses Ewell's claim about Beethoven as an example and his only conclusion about it is "these ideas are all worth discussing." I think McWhorter has good ideas to add to the conversation and is not trying to be inciniary or overstep: he clearly is aware that he is not qualified to have a discussion about music history or music theory and draws the line at actually engaging with Ewell's main arguments. To be sure, the quotes lack context, but that is because McWhorter is intentionally not wading into a conversation about music that would go outside his experise. That strikes me as laudatory: a big problem, maybe the big problem, with our inability to have real conversations about these issues, is that so many people are wiling to gradstand online about things they don't know anything about or haven't really thought through in any depth.

    --Jason Yust

     

  • I just discovered that two music theorists published an article in the Federalist anonomously because they were afraid of retribution. https://thefederalist.com/2020/10/14/how-critical-race-theory-has-poisoned-music-theory/ It is sad that so many music theorists are afraid to reply to Dr. Ewell's articles.  Here is what the authors of that article wrote:

    "There should not be any limit to the ideas we can explore, nor should there be any arbiters suppressing them. With calls like these, however, leftists once again reveal they do want limits on ideas, and they do want suppression of the “problematic” ones. That is because they enjoy being the suppressors."

    They continued: "There has been no serious attempt to debate the authors in the journal edition on the merits of their arguments, as they sought to do with Ewell’s. Instead, students and professors such as Megan Lavengood are taking passages out of context and presenting them as evidence of racism, as attempts to cover up Schenker’s racism, or as attempts to excuse themselves for “participating in a racist system.” The authors are being demonized for daring to suggest that music theory, as it is studied in Euro-American academia, is not fundamentally racist, and the reaction to the journal is clear evidence of a culture of censorship within the community."

  • Ewell is wrong. Beethoven was, is, will always be one of the great composers - race has nothing to do with it. How many works has Ewell composed that are performed for centuries by the world's greatest classical artists - if that's white supremecy so be it.
  • Ewell wrote (Ewell 2020):

    “Master,” and its derivatives (masterwork, masterpiece, masterful), carries both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations. In music theory “masterwork” is generally applied to compositions by white males. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. To state that Beethoven was any more than, say, above average as a composer is to state that you know all music written on planet earth 200 years ago when Beethoven was active as a composer, which no one does.

    It is useless to repeat the derivation of "master" from the Latin magister, which has none of the connotations mentioned by Ewell. Nobody (before Ewell) ever discussed how Beethoven compares to the "average" of composers two centuries ago. To evaluate the greatness of a composer in terms of a statistical average is ridiculous. (In addition the average, unless I am mistaken, is at 50%, not 99,9.)

    Ewell continues:

    Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years, and we have been told by whiteness and maleness that his greatness has nothing to do with whiteness and maleness, in race-neutral and gender-neutral fashion. Thus music theory’s white-male frame obfuscates race and gender, one of its main goals.

    No. The whole history of music composition since the Ninth has been marked by how composers positioned themselves with respect to it, and this has nothing to do with German nationalism. It also has little to do with music theory. As Ewell himself says, "in calling something a theory that can reasonably be argued is not, authors wish to insulate themselves from potential criticism."

    I am afraid that McWhorter is right when he writes "Anyone who does not agree with the ideology will be viewed as a 'white supremacist' who deserves to be tarred on social media and excluded from the public sphere." One cannot dismiss this merely claiming that "you don't understand [Ewell's] arguments."

    I am not sure that Ewell has music-theoretical arguments to support his claims – also concerning Esperanza Spalding. If there are arguments, they would certainly interest us all and they deserve discussion, as do McWhorter's arguments. And I'd like to see the "superabondance of very overt claims over the last two centuries" against "narratives crafted in many cases to advance German nationalism."

     

     

  • Nicolas, have you even read Ewell's work? Because it very much seems that you haven't based on some of the claims you just made in your reply.

    And yes, I can say that because he addresses many of your counterpoints in the full body of his work on the white racial frame in music theory.

    Devin Chaloux

    Indiana University

  • Devin, yes, I read Ewell's work. And I make very few claims in the above. I merely mean that if Ewell's arguments were clearer (they are not to me), it would be good to further discuss them. I have been repeating since a year that the whole matter should be discussed instead of dismissed.

     

     

  • Devin, I raised this issue because I wanted to open up debate on Ewell's antiracist theory and to show that not all Black scholars share his views.  Ewell's theory is based on the writings of Ibram X. Kendi.  Everyone who engages in the Ewell debate needs to be aware of his theories.

    Kendi believes that all inequalities beween races are due to racism.  Here are some quotes from How to Be an Antiracist:

    “The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.”

    “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.”

    “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

    The excerpt I quoted from from McWhorter, as well as his extensive writings on antiracisim, demonstrates the problems with Kendi's and Ewell's approaches.  You might also want to read The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizing-condescension-white-fragility/614146/ and Is Music Theory Really #SoWhite? https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p/is-music-theory-really-sowhite

     

  • I associate myself with the comments of Nicolas Meeùs. Further, I would add that Ewell's argument is ahistorical, doesn't bear up under scrutiny on purely theoretical and analytical grounds, and, given the current moral panic over race and 'whiteness', self-serving. It is, as McWhorter claims, anti-intellectual and lacking in complexity. At the very least, there ought to be a vigorous and open exchange about Ewell's (and others') ideas. 

  •  

    Nicolas Meeùs:

    "It does not suffice to mention the necessity to "reframe" music theory, nor to claim that there is so much music besides Western music, nor to argue that non Western theories should replace ours. We should question what these suggestions really entail. Either we seriously think about all this and discuss it, or we better remain silent."

    I hear silence (mostly).

     

  • Jason. Whorter has elaborated on his ideas in the article I mentioned above. Is Music Theory Really # So White? https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p/is-music-theory-really-sowhite

    Like many music theorists (e.g., Open Letter https://heinrichschenker.wordpress.com/open-letter-on-schenkers-racism-and-its-reception-in-the-united-states/), McWhorter cannot see the connection between hierachy in music and hierachy among racial groups, or dominance in music and dominance in society.

    McWhorter set the context for his discussion: "The nature of our intellectual culture at this moment is such that there will be a tendency for enlightened folk to avoid asking real questions of Prof. Ewell’s thesis. This will especially be the case after various professors did so in the incendiary issue of the Schenker journal and the issue has now been roundly roasted as a pamphlet of white supremacy."

    McWhorter noted that "This is a highly counterintuitive notion regardless of whether it can be defended. As such, any genuine address of Ewell’s thesis requires a direct and conclusive address of this particular point. Scholars abroad, for example, have tended to be baffled by the idea that Schenker’s racism invalidates his music theory. For example, Curtis Institute professor Eric Wen, born and raised in Hong Kong, has said that “He was no angel and so what? His ideology is problematic but his insights are massive.”

    He continued: "And generally, we all of us understand that imperfect people can do great things that deserve our reverence regardless. A random example: for all of his pioneering brilliance in forging the modern black identity, W.E.B. DuBois would not pass our tests today on classism and what sociologists call “agency” – he readily decreed a segment of black Philadelphians “lazy” – and it bears mentioning how unpleasantly it would ring to many today to hear a black leader speaking of nurturing a “talented tenth,” implying that the vast majority of others are less, or un-, talented. His very sense of where black America needed to go was seasoned partly by ideas we now see as outmoded (he would today also run aground upon Me, Too), and yet we justly celebrate his work, as well as his self, today."

    Specifically, "So – if Schenker’s music theory “is racist,” we need to have this explained. And Ewell’s article does include a section addressing this keystone point. However, that section is almost surprisingly brief. From what I can tell from Ewell’s article, fertile and elegantly written though it is overall, the idea that Schenkerian theory is, itself, racist comes down to two things."

    On the dominance of certain tones under Schenker's theory, McWhorter wrote, "I may be missing something, but I don’t follow the reasoning here. Is there any kind of music where some elements are not foregrounded while others are backgrounded, or even where elements structurally in the background do not ultimately color the music to such a degree that they come off as what the music “is really about” overall, like a dish that wouldn’t be itself without the marjoram almost to the point that you almost just want to eat marjoram alone with a spoon?"

    He gives examples: "I’m not thinking only of “white” music. I think of the balafon, a xylophone-like instrument played by the Sambla people in Burkina Faso. In playing the balafon, there is a dominating “pure” tone behind which there is a backgrounded – although vital – “buzz” created by how holes are cut in the gourds that comprise the instrument, that listeners could not imagine the music without. There is also a flatted note in the scale, an odd-man-out one that sounds kind of like what in jazz is called a “blue” note, that is used more for decoration than for “straight” statement but is, ultimately, a major essence of the music."

    Here is the key point for McWhorter and many others: "If Ewell’s claim is that music is racist when involving hierarchical relationships between elements, then we must ask where that puts a great deal of music created by non-white people. Perhaps more important, the question is: just what do these hierarchical relationships in music structure have to do with human suffering?"

    McWhorter concluded: "To refrain from asking these kinds of questions, clearly and directly, about positions such as Prof. Ewell’s leaves an implication – both for the claimants and us onlookers -- that the positions in question are unquestioned wisdom. The result is a body of intelligent people falling under the impression that their perspectives seasoned by Critical Race Theory are truth, resisted only by the morally challenged. We prevent them, as well as ourselves, from seeing that their ideas are proposals, subject to the same contestation as the rest of ours, and likely no more or less impregnable intellectually or ethically."

    Concerning Beethoven he added: "We have to compare something like one of Beethoven’s late string quartets – I’ll go for  the Opus 131 in C# minor. Schubert’s assessment of this one was “After this, what is left for us to write?” and wanted it played by his deathbed. Robert Schumann placed it “on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.” Yes, those two were limited by what they knew and heard as white guys – but I suspect their assessment stands the test of time for all humans today inclined to listen in to the piece.

    It can be hard to step outside of oneself, but I feel relatively confident that my awe of this piece is not an artifact of my occupying a white supremacist society – this quartet is truly awesome work on countless levels, head and shoulders above the Stamitz in craft, complexity and art. Moreover, I just cannot wrap my head around hearing it as “white supremacist” because it centers on certain notes and intervals over others and operates on the basis of things foregrounded and backgrounded."

  • Jason. I originally discussed McWhorter on Ewell, not for his musical insights, but for how McWhorter put Ewell into the proper context.  McWhorter is one of the leading Black scholars who have critiqued CRT and anti-racism.  As noted above, McWhorter thinks that "woke" culture has gone from a diversity of viewpoints to a "religion."  He believes that the woke consider themslves the Elect, who label dissenters as racists.  This is what has happened within music theory since Ewell's presentation.

    McWhorter also has criticized the CRT and antiracist works that Ewell has relied on for his theory. For example, Ewell relies partly on Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragilty" to help support his arguments.  Ewell wrote, "Black advancement triggers white rage, and this rage knows no political party, nor does it limit itself to certain geographic regions. White persons in music theory are virtually all left-of-center in terms of politics, and it is easy for such persons to think that white rage is limited to those who are right-of-center. This is a grave mistake, as Robin DiAngelo often states in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk about Racism. When liberal whites believe that problems of racism are limited to those who are right-of-center, it makes it virtually impossible to achieve any positive change in music theory with respect to racial justice."  https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/author/philipaewell/

    McWhorter declared concerning white fragility, "I am not convinced. Rather, I have learned that one of America’s favorite advice books of the moment is actually a racist tract. Despite the sincere intentions of its author, the book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us. This is unintentional, of course, like the racism DiAngelo sees in all whites. Still, the book is pernicious because of the authority that its author has been granted over the way innocent readers think." https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/dehumanizing-condescension-white-fragility/614146/

    He declared, "The problem is that White Fragility is the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult."

    He continued: "Reading White Fragility is rather like attending a diversity seminar. DiAngelo patiently lays out a rationale for white readers to engage in a self-examination that, she notes, will be awkward and painful. Her chapters are shortish, as if each were a 45-minute session. DiAngelo seeks to instruct."

    He added: "As such, a major bugbear for DiAngelo is the white American, often of modest education, who makes statements like I don’t see color or asks questions like How dare you call me “racist”? Her assumption that all people have a racist bias is reasonable—science has demonstrated it. The problem is what DiAngelo thinks must follow as the result of it."

    McWhorter points out the books many flaws. For example, "For one, DiAngelo’s book is replete with claims that are either plain wrong or bizarrely disconnected from reality. Exactly who comes away from the saga of Jackie Robinson thinking he was the first Black baseball player good enough to compete with whites? “Imagine if instead the story,” DiAngelo writes, “went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.’” But no one need imagine this scenario, as others have pointed out, because it is something every baseball fan already knows. Later in the book, DiAngelo insinuates that, when white women cry upon being called racists, Black people are reminded of white women crying as they lied about being raped by Black men eons ago. But how would she know? Where is the evidence for this presumptuous claim?"

    Similarly, "An especially weird passage is where DiAngelo breezily decries the American higher-education system, in which, she says, no one ever talks about racism. “I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism,” she writes. “I can graduate from law school without ever discussing racism. I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism.” I am mystified that DiAngelo thinks this laughably antique depiction reflects any period after roughly 1985. For example, an education-school curriculum neglecting racism in our times would be about as common as a home unwired for electricity."

    He emphasized that "If you object to any of the “feedback” that DiAngelo offers you about your racism, you are engaging in a type of bullying “whose function is to obscure racism, protect white dominance, and regain white equilibrium.”

    He asserted, "And herein is the real problem with White Fragility. DiAngelo does not see fit to address why all of this agonizing soul-searching is necessary to forging change in society. One might ask just how a people can be poised for making change when they have been taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good. What end does all this self-mortification serve?"

    Moreover, "A corollary question is why Black people need to be treated the way DiAngelo assumes we do. The very assumption is deeply condescending to all proud Black people. In my life, racism has affected me now and then at the margins, in very occasional social ways, but has had no effect on my access to societal resources; if anything, it has made them more available to me than they would have been otherwise. Nor should anyone dismiss me as a rara avis. Being middle class, upwardly mobile, and Black has been quite common during my existence since the mid-1960s, and to deny this is to assert that affirmative action for Black people did not work.

    In 2020—as opposed to 1920—I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me. Nor do I need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive about my feelings. I see no connection between DiAngelo’s brand of reeducation and vigorous, constructive activism in the real world on issues of import to the Black community. And I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome."

    "Too much of White Fragility has the problem of elevating rhetorical texture over common sense."

    In conclusion, "White Fragility is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of Black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think—or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be racist in a whole new way."

    (Composer/theorist John Halle also has some insights into DiAngelo;s work. https://johnhalle.com/on-tonal-stability-and-white-fragility-music-theorys-gift-to-the-right/#more-3614 "Before discussing what these are, it’s worth correcting a minor error in Ewell’s text with respect to the misidentification of Robin di Angelo as “a scholar”. In fact, Di Angelo has not held a full time academic position since resigning her post at Westfield (MA) State University in 2015 and her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism being conspicuously deficient in citing peer reviewed academic work is far from a scholarly study, as others have pointed out.  Furthermore, Di Angelo functions as a corporate diversity consultant compensated by mostly Fortune 500 firms presiding over mandatory anti racist employee training sessions. More recently, the massive popularity of While Fragility has created a market for her public appearances and it appears that the bulk of her income is now derived from these.")

    Concerning Kendi's “How to Be an Antiracist,” which Ewell relied on heavily. McWhorter stated, it "is founded on dichotomous aphorisms typical of the street preacher, its facile and slipshod reasoning rendering Coleman Hughes’s book review title “How to Be an Anti-Intellectual” sadly accurate."  He added, "America is falling under the grips of this ideology out of neither serious counsel nor consensus, but fear. For most Americans, being called a racist is all but equivalent to being called a paedophile."  https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2021/05/24/john-mcwhorter-on-how-critical-race-theory-poorly-serves-its-intended-beneficiaries

    He added, "Sadly, the new antiracism leaves us with yet something else we must overcome. The notion that what black America needs is a vast, unprecedented and ultimately impossible transformation of white psychology is an idle distraction from how justice actually proceeds."

  • Stephen, your comment is beautiful.  It describes perfectly why we study music, art, and literature.

  • I wonder how many people would like to contribute to this discussion but are worried about retribution.

     

  • Deborah. I have received four emails from music theorists in the last few days that say exactly this. They want to speak up, but they are afraid of being cancelled. SMT needs to create an atmosphere (both explicitly and implicitly) for open debate on all relevant issues.

  • Stephen Soderberg's message above prompted me to reread ancient issues of MTO, among which Kofi Agawu's "Analyzing Music Under the New Musicological Regime" (MTO 2.4, 1996), which seems to me to answer several of the criticisms raised anew by Philip Ewell 25 years later. Agawu quotes Kramer, who said:

    “The theories that ground [postmodernist] strategies are radically anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, and anti-totalizing. They emphasize the constructedness, both linguistic and ideological, of all human identities and institutions. They insist on the relativity of all knowledge to the disciplines—not just the conceptual presuppositions but the material, discursive, and social practices—that produce and circulate knowledge. While often disagreeing with each other, poststructuralists, neopragmatists, feminists, psychoanalytic theorists, critical social theorists, multiculturalists and others have been changing the very framework within which disagreement can meaningfully occur.”

    And Kofi adds: "If we read Kramer’s statement as a call to action rather than as a summary of existing scholarship, if in other words we detach its political motivation from the cogency of its epistemology, then it is hard to imagine any worthwhile opposition to his vision of a new musicology."

    Kofi's article is worth rereading in full. After having quoted numerous recent studies (25 years ago!), he concludes (I merely replace "new musicology" by "Ewell" in his conclusion):

    The evidence of these and numerous other studies ought to do three things: first, to remind us that some of the challenges posed by [Ewell] have not gone unobserved in the theoretical literature; second, to help counter the gross and surprisingly popular criticism of music theory as a merely formalist enterprise and to enjoin [Ewell] to approach the intellectual capital of music theory with a bit more discrimination; third, to demand of [Ewell] a new and improved approach to analysis, one that escapes the dangers of present practices that [he has] identified. Theorists’ commitment to analytical demonstration is sometimes facilely dismissed as an outgrowth of a modernist impulse. And their acceptance of a burden of proof would seem to slow them down, throwing a ‘conservative’ veil over their activities. Why this should be a cause for concern is not clear. Academic discourse is surely not racing towards a single finishing line.

    I am ready to hear Ewell's statements as calls for action, but I believe that it is up to the SMT to bring them to action. The main point, I think, is the "reframing" of music theory. There is no reason to remain silent about what that may mean, it certainly is important to discuss how that might be done. As Stephen Soderberg implied above, this might involve redefining music theory and music analysis (as we had done in most interesting discussions here several years ago).

     

     

  • The New York Times (Zaid Jilani) has favorably reviewed John McWhorter's " WOKE RACISM: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America." https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/26/books/review/john-mcwhorter-woke-racism.html

    Excerpts:

    "In recent years, however, a much darker vision has emerged on the political left. America isn’t a land of opportunity. It’s barely changed since the days of Jim Crow. Whites, universally privileged, maintain an iron grip on American society, while nonwhites are little more than virtuous victims cast adrift on a plank in an ocean of white supremacy.

    This worldview has swiftly implanted itself into major institutions, from our universities to our corporations. Why has it captivated so many people?

    The Columbia University linguist John McWhorter attempts to answer that question in “Woke Racism,” which seeks to both explain and rebut this ideology."

    "McWhorter, who also writes a newsletter for The Times’s Opinion section, is a Black liberal who dissents from much of the left’s views on race issues. In 2000, he published “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America,” where he argued that counterproductive cultural beliefs and practices, not racial prejudice, were the main forces preventing more African Americans from succeeding. Some of his targets in that book were left-wing academics, who he worried were helping transform victimhood “from a problem to be solved into an identity in itself.”

    "Yet in the two decades since, those academics seem to have become more influential than ever. In his latest book, McWhorter suggests that’s because their ideology has been elevated into a religion.

    “I do not mean that these people’s ideology is ‘like’ a religion. I seek no rhetorical snap in this comparison. I mean that it actually is a religion,” he writes. “An anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism.”

    While praising earlier generations of civil rights work, he objects to what he calls “Third Wave Antiracism,” which preaches that “racism is baked into the structure of society, whites’ ‘complicity’ in living within it constitutes racism itself, while for Black people, grappling with the racism surrounding them is the totality of experience and must condition exquisite sensitivity toward them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct.”

    "McWhorter refers to the prophets of the Third Wave as “the Elect.” They see themselves as “bearers of a Good News that, if all people would simply open up and see it, would create a perfect world.”McWhorter says that the Elect’s unshakable convictions have led them to persecute people with unfair accusations of racism."

    "As in his previous books, McWhorter views it as a mistake to forge one’s identity around victimhood. He characterizes the woke racial worldview as harmful not for normalizing antiwhite prejudices or treating the social categories of race as something concrete, but because it deprives Black people of their humanity by infantilizing them. He objects to lowering standards for minorities, as when certain members of the Elect claim that “objectivity, being on time and the written word are ‘white’ things.”

    "Where McWhorter is less effective is in his critique of some of the Third Wave’s high priests."

    "Yet if you doubt the necessity of McWhorter’s intervention into the debates about race, consider the following episode: In the summer of 2020, a journalist friend of mine named Lee Fang attended a Black Lives Matter rally and, in a video clip he posted to Twitter, interviewed a young Black man named Max about his thoughts on policing issues.

    Max spoke from a place of personal pain. He’d had two cousins murdered in the East Oakland neighborhood where he grew up. He was sympathetic to the outcry over the death of George Floyd, but he was equally troubled by high rates of violence in some minority communities.

    “I always question, why does a Black life only matter when a white man takes it?” he asked Fang. “Like, if a white man takes my life tonight, it’s going to be national news, but if a Black man takes my life, it might not even be spoken of.”

    A co-worker of Fang’s reacted to the tweet by publicly decrying him as a racist. Soon, thousands of others chimed in to condemn him, including quite a few journalists from major outlets. Eventually, he released a public apology."

    "Welcome to the world that the Elect are trying to create. The only story they want us to tell is one where whites are the villains and minorities are the victims. Honest discussion of why homicide is the leading cause of death for young Black men is off limits."

    "But I agree with McWhorter that a religion that seeks to defeat white supremacy by insisting that nonwhite people cannot be expected to uphold the same standards of conduct and ethics as white people isn’t one worth believing in."

  • Nate, the whole matter probably deserves being treated more seriously. When I mentioned the history of music composition after Beethoven, I obviously meant Western music composition. If we were to cut hairs in four, I'd add 1) that Beijing opera (jingju) cannot really be considered "composed", that when creating it in the mid 19th century, Beijing opera musicians may have been considering the case of Beethoven – they most probably did in the 20th century under Mao Zedung, when Beijing opera was transcribed for piano.

    Your postings indirectly raise questions that are important. Why is Western music more "composed" than others, why is it more "written"? Why did the West loose much of the idea of music of oral tradition? Why is this important for the history of music theory (which heavily relies on written examples) and why is it problematic for its "reframing"?

    Don't object that most cultures of the world know music notation, I am aware of that. The question is why many of them nevertheless do not much write music – why should they? Do you realize that the earliest music notation in the world, Mesopotamian notation, appeared some 5000 years ago or more, but that the earliest examples of music written in this notation are only about a millenium later? What was the purpose of notation before that?

    It does not suffice to mention the necessity to "reframe" music theory, nor to claim that there is so much music besides Western music, nor to argue that non Western theories should replace ours. We should question what these suggestions really entail. Either we seriously think about all this and discuss it, or we better remain silent.

     

     

  • But, if we are going to "reframe music theory," we need to reframe it a manner that is realistic, not through pseudo-science. Cognitive scientists and many others have demonstrated the theory that culture is socially-constructed, which is the foundation for Ewell's, Kramer's, and Agawu's theories, is false. Rather, our brains process music through universal mechanisms, with cultural differences building on top. For example, cognitive scientists have concluded that hierarchy is universal in music, but it manifests itself in different ways among cultures.

    I go into detail on the above ideas in Philip Ewell’s White Racial Framework in Music Theory and Cognitive Science at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3816979

    In sum, I suggest that music theorists reframe music theory using insights of cognitive science.

  • Nate, to speak of "the whole history of music composition" as you do, merely reflects a Western supremacism (if you allow me to speak like Ewell). Why do you mention "composers of Beijing opera in the 19th century"? Do you know of any name of 19th-century "composer" of Beijing opera? How do you understand that it is composed

     

     

  • "But who did we think we were?

    "My answer is that theory rests on analysis based on intellectual power, not just description. A theorist is a master analyst—certainly of tonal music, preferably also of 20th century music, and preferably of some other historical or contemporary genre. The proliferation of worthy topics like jazz, feminism, world music or cognition is welcome and adds to the value of music education in itself—but the rock of theory is analytic mastery. To the extent that the SMT as a group, or individuals who call themselves theorists, walk away from the analytic agenda, so much do they and we risk marginalizing ourselves. Diversity cannot be a cover for the SMT becoming an orphanage.

    "My advice may seem harsh, but it is given out of love for all who preceded us, for everyone here tonight, and for all who will continue to work in the name of theory."

    —Richmond Brown, "The Deep Background of Our Society" (from an ad hoc speech at the 2003 banquet celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SMT)

    Thank you for your kind attention.

    You may now resume your annual exercise in making complete fools of yourselves.