It Was Never About Schenker


I know that talking about #SchenkerGate is deconstructive rather than constructive, which is what I don’t want to be – but I need to put my thoughts on this issue, which has taken some turns, in one place. 

Nothing ever gets resolved (no pun intended) in #SchenkerGate* because the opposing sides are not actually discussing the same thing. “Schenker” has come to stand for two totally different things – for one side, “Schenker” means “the rigorous study of complex Western music theory” while for the other it stands for “white male power structures.” Neither side really understands how the other side could be so heartless, given the gravity of what’s at stake. Both of them are using Schenker as a stand-in for a different abstract concept. 

And round and round it goes. 

Schenkerians continually argue historically (“Dr. Ewell only uses early quotes from Schenker and ignores his later writings” or “Dr. Ewell mischaracterizes historical facts”), theoretically (“Is there any music which does NOT have a hierarchy of tones?”) and even, surprisingly often, by highlighting the importance of Schenker to music theory. Those might be good points within a totally different discussion. But the point isn’t about Schenker or even music theory. Dr. Ewell is not “doing” music theory when he critiques “the white racial frame of music theory,” nor is Dr. Lavengood** whose Tweet in which she shared emails sent to her by a frustrated Schenekrian, Dr. Caldwell, prompted me (along with another incident, below) to re-open Schenker in this post. Dr. Caldwell accused Dr. Lavengood of overstepping her boundaries by critiquing a field in which she was, compared to Dr. Caldwell, a novice. Sure, his tone was pretty bad (but that would be tone-policing, wouldn’t it?) More importantly, though, Dr. Caldwell’s point would make sense only if the subject was really the doing of music theory. The point, however, is not music theory, really, but a frustration, a deep frustration, that racism still abounds, that certain races and genders seem to cluster in certain disciplines and that this has been slow to change, that what we think of as art - that beautiful thing that is supposed to express our humanity - reflects a past which was, undeniably, racist and sexist and an access to resources that clearly continues to be out of balance. To argue with that using music theory doesn’t make any sense – ultimately, after having thought long and hard about it, I would point this out to Dr. Ewell, and I’m continually surprised by how many people who try to critique Dr. Ewell’s work take the bait on making it about music theory simply because he framed it that way. This whole “imbroglio” is, at its very core, about a desire to deal with the incredible imbalance of power and resources which has defined human civilization since the dawn of history. It’s not about Schenker. It’s not even about music theory. 

I seem to have a totally different problem with all this, one that I have not heard from anyone with whom I have spoken or whose takes I have read: 

You know something is terribly wrong when a scholar can make a claim as bombastic as saying that a skillset associated with a certain discipline (the tradition of so-called Western music theory) naturally discriminates against a large swath of people (those who are not white and not male***) and not have that claim questioned. It isn’t being questioned by the Schenekrians, of course, because they “just care about the theory.” It isn’t being questioned by the “reformers” because – well, I guess because they feel that if they do examine it too closely, they will lose the thread of coherence holding together their movement for reform. 

I have already said this, as kindly as I could, in my second video about #SchenkerGate and music education reform: To say that a certain kind of music theory by its very nature (not because of the prejudice of the people applying it or the lack of access to early education in it, for example) discriminates against a certain swath of people, is to say that there are essential, inherent differences between people of different genders and races. We’ve circled back, in other words, to the purest forms of racism and sexism.

Now, Dr. Ewell has written and lectured about this subject a lot more than just through his talk and paper on music theory’s white racial frame and I do not wish to reduce him to that one “take.” But that one paper got a lot of traction and that is why it is particularly important that we thoroughly and fairly examine what he’s really saying - and it’s frustrating that rather than there being any real discussion we have been left simply with the option of “for” and “against.” We were left with those two options because of the combined nonsense of the JSS response and the subsequent backlash. Because it started that way, everyone went into survival mode and from that point on, it was no longer possible to discuss flaws within the argument of the side one was on. If more nuanced discussions are happening among music educators behind closed doors, they’re not being brought into the open prominently enough and they should be.  

Another incident which convinced me to write about Schenker again happened earlier, when Dr. Ewell posted a link on Twitter of the “European response” (I guess there are so few European Schenkerians that they only need make a single public response?) to #SchenkerGate. He called the response “European paternalism at its finest” in his Tweet and some (mostly white) people posted mocking responses underneath. So I opened what I assumed was going to be one of those attempted takedowns of Dr. Ewell and what I found was a very confused, very concerned statement that, at its core, seemed to say that the signatories want to have an open discussion about the issue. There was no dismissal – just an admission of incomprehension and a call for conversation. For example, it contained the following statements: “This all could have led to an interesting and much needed debate, as it certainly is time for the American music theory to turn the page of Schenkerian hagiography.” or “Despite the overtly and willingly polemic stance of Prof. Ewell’s keynote address, calling for debate, no scholarly discussion about the crux of the affair – Schenker’s racism and American music theory’s whiteness – appears to have followed” (emphasis mine.) They clearly acknowledge Dr. Ewell’s work and want to talk about Schenker’s racism and music theory’s whiteness. And Dr. Ewell’s response is to hang them out to dry on Twitter? Really? 

Look, this is schoolyard, stuff. Little kids make fun of each other for not being “in” on things. Dr. Ewell gave me – a near-nobody – at least an hour and several substantial emails of his time after I sent him some questions about his work. I thank him for it –why do I deserve that treatment while his fellow scholars, who aren't even disagreeing with him, deserve only mockery? 

It should not be expected of European scholars to understand the framework and terminology of American critical race theory and the discourse around it i.e. not use words which have come to be triggering in American discourse***** or not understand the meaning of certain terms.****** The American way is not the only way to discuss issues of race or gender and the assumption that it is might be called “American imperialism at its finest.” 

My main problem, though, is that Dr. Ewell was mischaracterizing what he read to such an extent that it makes me fear that he is reflecting the reality he sees, a reality dictated by a jostling for power. Dr. Ewell has power, now. The power, for example (though that is the smallest of them), to tell a bunch of people on Twitter that something is problematic and have them cheer him on without actually reading the text or deliberately misreading it. I think that kind of power can be used for good and that Dr. Ewell wants to use it that way. I hope he does. 

The theorist connected to the “European response,” Nicolas MeeĆ¹s, later contacted me because I had answered Dr. Ewell’s Tweet saying something along the lines of “let me translate: they don’t understand the issue but do want to discuss.” This is the second time (the first time was Dr. Jackson) that an actual, established music theorist has contacted me seemingly in search of some kind of solace or approval in relation to backlash surrounding his reaction to Dr. Ewell’s talk and paper. This is endemic of a deep problem at the heart of this “imbroglio” and, I dare say, American academe as such. 

If established music theory scholars feel so alienated that they are contacting someone like me – some singer and attempted YouTuber with little academic credibility - to talk it out, then clearly change is being imposed rather than really made. Why is that a bad thing? Because imposed change is fragile. I am half Czech, and grew up partially in the Czech Republic, a post-communist country. The generation of my parents and grandparents experienced a totalitarian regime in which free speech really was suppressed. You know what this taught them? That you don’t change minds by changing what views people are allowed to express publicly. Sure, you can “purify” your department, your university, your discipline from people who speak out against what you think of as “the revolution.” What happens next? Do you think expelled academics will simply go gently into that good night? In the age of the internet? 

Now, if the people imposing that truth believed in objectivity, I would be less worried. Dr. Ewell – who I do think represents the broader thinking on one side of this issue – seems to think objectivity itself is a construct and told me as much in an email. Now saying that the current social agreement is a construct – and not objective – is one thing. Indeed, we take things to be objective that are, in fact, subjective. Questioning objectivity itself is a problem, though, because justice and fairness are forms of objectivity and racism and sexism are forms of subjectivity. When you stop believing in objectivity, all that is left is the power to impose what is real. 

I don’t think it has to be that way. For most people, it should be possible to find some kind of common ground in reality, a reality which should be just, fair, livable for as many people as possible. The only prerequisite is that everyone involved is truly willing to listen and isn’t afraid of disagreement or of having their views questions and, possibly, changed. That’s what academics are supposed to be good at, right? Most importantly: It would be better for the very people Dr. Ewell seeks to empower (in my small way I, a woman, am one of them) for change to be real, not simply imposed and then endlessly enforced. And if you think that you just have to weed out certain people and then everyone will get on board because you are on the “right side” – well, right and wrong, is not the point. That is the kernel of truth at the heart of questioning objectivity. Whether people are right or wrong, whether they are spreading truth and love or lies and hate, they believe what they believe, and even a totalitarian regime that sends people to prison, and occasionally murders them, for expressing certain views cannot stop them. Only changing their mind can stop them. If you choose the path of punishment rather than discourse, you will be left continually imposing power over what is officially true – and eventually you will lose, because truth imposed is a fragile truth. 

The longer I spend with #SchenkerGate the less faith I have in American academe. I don’t think Dr. Ewell, or any of the people who wholeheartedly follow him, consciously think there are essential differences between people based on gender or race. I think they have simply thought themselves into that corner through their frustration with the state of things –and, yes, I feel that frustration, too. But they’re trying to make it easy on themselves. They want something simple like: “Not enough non-white, non-male music theorists? Clearly you’re teaching the wrong theory!” Easy. Force them to change the curriculum. Don’t teach as much Schenker. Don’t talk about the fact that most people don’t even get to the point of being able to decide not to do music theory. They call it “doing the work” and talk about how “uncomfortable” it is but they’re going down a path in which only power, not the pursuit for truth, determines reality. 

*To review: #Schenkergate is an “imbroglio” (as Inside Higher Ed called it) named after a turn-of-the-century Austrian music theorist called Heinrich Schenker. Schenker’s work, from what non-American musicologists tell me, only holds any real sway in the United States and he is thought of as rather “fringe” (or as having ideas similar to other, more commonly studied theorists) in most other places. I don’t say this to dismiss Schenker or Schenkerians. It wouldn’t even be my place to do that. I only point it out to highlight the absurdity of this whole “imbroglio,” which would be silly even if it were about Schenker but is even sillier in that it isn’t really about him, yet has unfolded as a discussion about this particular theorist’s racism and its relevance to the music theory he put forth, even though it is, in fact, much bigger than that. 

 After Dr. Ewell gave a talk at the SMT plenary session in November 2019 titled “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” which focused it’s middle third on Schenker as an extended illustration of a broader critique, Dr. Jackson, a Schenkerian theorist and then-editor of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas, decided to use the journal he edited as a way to provide counterpoints to Dr. Ewell’s well-received and widely-praised talk. Issue 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian studies was almost entirely dedicated to responses to Dr. Ewell’s talk and had a 2:1 ratio of critical to positive responses to said talk - so, those who say that it was simply a scree of negative responses against Dr. Ewell are wrong, but it also didn’t fit the definition of balance, though the editors could justify this given the fact that this was, like I said, well received, so perhaps they felt they were balancing things out. Another issue was that the responses concerned the 20 minute talk Dr. Ewell gave rather than the more extensive paper on the same subject, which came out in the SMT journal in September 2020. And, with Issue 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, the whole thing came to be about Schenker, so that when the grad students of UNT called Issue 12 out on Twitter for being racist, they didn’t launch #MusicTheoryGate but #SchenkerGate. 

** Dr. Lavengood seems to be the first to have really drawn attention to the content of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Issue 12, on her blog last July 

***In his talk and paper, Dr. Ewell spoke of race, but in his other work, especially his blog, he extends his critique to encompass gender, sexuality etc. as well.

****Dr. Jackson, in his response to Dr. Ewell, did engage with the idea of inequality but his proposed solution (namely that it’s important to provide access to early, rigorous music education to a more diverse range of students if you want more diversity at the college level) were themselves dismissed as racist. It would take a whole other blog post to explain why that was but part of the problem was that it was nestled in an editorial that, in its essence, blamed Dr. Ewell’s critique of Schenker on “Black antisemitism.” Understandably, it was hard for any cogent point to come through given that “thesis.” 

*****the “European response” used the word “censorship” which I think has come to be viewed as a dog whistle for “not being allowed to express racist and sexist views.” 

******the “European response” stated that the authors could not find “antiblack sentiments” with this JSS Issue 12 – no one checked whether they actually knew what “antiblack” means, since to any reasonable person who does not exist within American discourse, “antiblack” could only possibly mean “overtly expressing a desire to obliterate an entire race.” In American academic discourse, it has come to mean something much more covert. 

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