Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rethinking Music Theory, With Syrian Aid

By Gavin Lee

There was a standing ovation when Kofi Agawu finished his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the Society for Music Theory, “Rethinking Music Theory, With African Aid.” The premise of the speech was that music theory could do worse than to rethink its fundamental precepts from the outside, by using African musics as a reference point to think about tonality, rhythm, timbre and myriad other theoretical areas. While this was a move in the right direction, I remember wondering whether the audience was applauding because they were thoroughly convinced by the speech, because this was a long-awaited call for music theory to expand its horizon, because Agawu’s speech ignited a strong moral feeling of rightness grounded in liberalism—or whether because it was Agawu who gave the speech. Could an unknown scholar based in the non-West have been asked to give the keynote, and would she have received a standing ovation?

Two decades after New Musicology emerged, the slew of agendas ranging from postcolonial and critical race studies to gender and sexuality that it ushered in has had a mixed impact. We might attribute music theory’s turn to non-Western music, not least in Agawu’s keynote speech, to the impact of New Musicology, which, in heralding the deployment of literary theory, led to the rise of orientalist studies, with Jonathan Bellman’s 1998 edited volume The Exotic in Western Music being an early focal point. Since then, there has been a push to reach beyond Western music to address the music and discourse of actual others, and the recent establishment of the Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM) interest group of SMT marks a decisive turning point.

Has music theory become more socially liberal (in the American sense) than musicology? AMS, the spiritual home of New Musicology, is not without members who work on music from other parts of the world, and we have seen some promising developments in terms of lessening the divide between hoary binaries such as West and non-West, in part by adopting concepts such as postcolonialism, cultural transfer, cosmopolitanism, and globalization. Yet the divisions run deep across academic institutions, journals, and university departments. Given that AMS does not yet have such as a group as “Musicological Approaches to World Music” (not that ethnomusicologists would approve, in all likelihood), it would seem that AAWM in its embrace of music around the globe represents a wing of SMT that is more progressive than its sister society. Yet on other items in the agenda of the 90s, music theory has proved to be far more resistant. I’m constantly reminded that whereas Queer Musicology is now a thing, queer issues in music theory circles are regularly consigned precisely to musicology, leaving music theory untouched—and believe me, I have heard that argument many many times as chair of the SMT Queer Resource Group.

This is not the place for an extended philosophical discussion on the convoluted relation between musicology and music theory, but I shall offer two commonly circulated logics, without intending them as anything near a comprehensive analysis of that relation.

1) “I’m not racist because I have black friends!” On 2 Feb 2017, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology released statements opposing the ban on travel to the United States imposed on citizens of 7 countries in the Middle East. “We the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society urgently request that the Trump administration withdraw its Executive Order of 27 January 2017…” “The Board of the Society for Ethnomusicology joins other constituents of the American Council of Learned Societies in calling for the immediate retraction of the U.S. Executive Order of January 27, 2017…” SMT, in contrast, released a statement of “values” on Feb 3: “The Executive Board of the Society for Music Theory reaffirms the society’s values of inclusivity and diversity, open and respectful dialogue, academic freedom, and scholarly integrity.” SMT Executive Board’s statement, coming hot on the heels of statements from its sister societies, is clearly inspired by the same Executive Order, yet board members seem to feel that it was necessary to main plausible deniability. If SMT were a person, we could imagine it saying, “I’m not racist because I’m friends with African music!” Just as it is in a sense easier to just analyze world music rather than to do the work of understanding cultural others, it is easier to analyze world music than to make a stand for people of the world. Could it be that music theory has arrived at a formalistic response to New Musicology’s liberal agenda—by focusing on the musical form rather than cultural content of others? Perhaps if queer were a country, queer music theory would be a thing by now.

2) “‘Where are you from?’ is a racist question.” What if in an alternate universe, Agawu’s SMT keynote address is to be given instead by a noted music theorist of Syrian birth, who in addition to having authored key texts in North American music theory, is also a noted scholar of Syrian music, and is now banned from traveling to the US to give a keynote address at an SMT conference? The fact that this scenario has to be set in an alternate universe is telling, highlighting the near-total invisibility of Middle Eastern music theorists, and of scholarship on Middle Eastern music within both SMT and AMS. It used to be the case that “Where are you from?” was understood within the context of privilege, where an American-born Syrian, for instance, might resist the implication of radical otherness in that question. For those of us trying to gain entry to the US under a Trump administration, however, “Where are you from?” is no longer a discursive act but carries the full police force of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, witnessed horrifically recently.

Might music theorists wish to focus more attention on political readings that arise out of music theory, as well as politics per se, as we move forward under a Trump administration which has promised itself to be the negation of the spirit of a whole host of SMT standing committees and interest groups: Committee on Diversity, Committee on the Status of Women, Music and Disability Interest Group, Queer Resource Group, Scholars for Social Responsibility, just to name the more obvious ones?

Gavin Lee (PhD, Duke 2014) is Assistant Professor at Soochow University, China. He has chaired AMS, SMT, and SEM conference sessions, and resists forces that seek to re-inscribe disciplinary divisions.

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