Classical Music

Black music theorist Philip Ewell calls out racism in music theory

philip ewell

Philip Ewell spoke out against racism in a 2019 paper and found himself on the other end of it when White music theorists responded in a closed publication.

You know how they say some White people are more offended by people calling them racist than racism itself? Well, here’s a big example of that.

In November 2019, Black music theorist Philip Ewell gave an address entitled Music Theory’s White Racial Frame at the annual conference for the Society for Music Theory. Here’s the abstract:

For over twenty years, music theory has tried to diversify with respect to race, yet the field today remains remarkably white, not only in terms of the people who practice music theory but also in the race of the composers and theorists whose work music theory privileges. In this paper, a critical-race examination of the field of music theory, I try to come to terms with why this is so. I posit that there exists a “white racial frame” in music theory that is structural and institutionalized, and that only through a deframing and reframing of this white racial frame will we begin to see positive racial changes in music theory.

Sounds fair to me. But the “controversial” part was the calling out of music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose method of analysis—known as Schenkerian Analysis—became a fundamental part of music theory. Ewell claimed Schenker was a racist that there was a “direct link between his white supremacy and his style of musical analysis”. He also said that Schenker created music theory structure built with a network of other white theorists teaching only analysis of white, male composers.

The response to his work was generally positive but a few people called him out for being “inept” and a racist. Last month, the Center for Schenkerian Studies and the University of North Texas Press published their monthly publication, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, featuring 14 responses to Ewell’s paper. Again, sounds fair in the halls of academia. Except they weren’t peer-reviewed and Ewell wasn’t invited to take part or defend his work.

Amongst the responses was one from UNT professor Timothy Jackson who accused Ewell of anti-Semitism.

“Ewell’s denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism. They currently manifest themselves in myriad ways, including the pattern of violence against Jews, the obnoxious lyrics of some hip-hop songs, etc.”

Has Jackson forgotten Black Jews exist? The journal publication drew heavy criticism from the musicology community, including an open letter addressed to the Journal of Schenkerian Studies.

As of 31 July, the University of North Texas announced they would formally investigate the journal but no news on when or how that will play out. It’s also a little suss that this isn’t an independent review. We’ll keep you posted.

(via Classic FM)

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