In November 2019, music theorist Philip Ewell gave a plenary at the annual meeting for the Society for Music Theory. Titled “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame,” Ewell’s discussion of equity in American music theory was supported by the example of Heinrich Schenker, whose documented racist ideologies have historically been historically overlooked by scholars. Ewell, who himself relies on Schenkerian theory, argued that Schenker’s racism should be included in classroom discussions of his work—something Schenker himself would have agreed with—and suggested that reducing the number of semesters focused on Schenkerian music theory would allow for other, non-Western modes of music theory to be incorporated into curricula. Ewell’s frank discussion of Schenker prompted the peer-reviewed Journal of Schenkerian Studies, published annually by the University of North Texas Press, to run 15 essays in response to Ewell’s plenary. These appeared in Volume 12, published July 24, 2020. The Journal was subsequently criticized for the quality of responses. Several veered into ad hominem attacks on Ewell himself. One submission ran anonymously—a rarity in academic publishing. Another was written by an academic/editorial advisor for the Journal, Timothy Jackson, without following best practices set for such instances to avoid conflicts of interest.Following vocal criticism and pushback from its student body and faculty (including an open letter signed and circulated online), and the wider music theory community, UNT assembled an ad hoc review panel to investigate the conception and production of Volume 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. The panel comprised five UNT faculty members—all outside of the College of Music, and all current or former editors of scholarly journals. The focus here was not the content of the responses, but how the issue itself came together. Citing standards and guidelines for academic publishing recommended by the Committee on Publication Ethics, the panel determined that there were several instances of editorial mismanagement, including a lack of peer or complete editorial review of the responses to Ewell that were published. UNT made the full review public.In response to the review and the committee’s recommendations, Jackson’s department chair, Benjamin Brand, wrote to him: “I cannot support a plan according to which you would remain involved in the day-to-day operations of the journal, and its editorial process in particular.” Brand also said that he would support “the possibility of relocating the JSS and thus severing ties between the journal, UNT, and UNT Press,” should Jackson wish.On January 14, 2021, Jackson filed a lawsuit against 26 named defendants: eight members of the UNT Board of Regents in their official capacity, 17 faculty members in Jackson’s own division, and one PhD student and teaching fellow. In two essays examining difference aspects of the case, we try to make sense of an academic music theory debate that came to encompass the biggest questions of free speech and morality currently percolating in American society.

Systematic Thinking

In his address to the Society for Music Theory, Philip Ewell argued for an enrichment of the musicological curriculum. Music studied by college students in the United States is overwhelmingly by white, male classical composers. Such a canon doesn’t reflect the aesthetic or social reality of students’ lives. One step, Ewell suggested, would be to cut two of the usual four semesters on the functional harmony of Western classical music and replace them with the analysis of “non-Western, non-white” music.

For Ewell, music theory studies in the U.S. operate according to a set of assumptions called the “White Racial Frame,” a term coined by the sociologist Joe R. Feagin, through which racist figures and ideas become sanitized and neutral. To illustrate the prevalence of this process, Ewell used the case of Heinrich Schenker, the Austrian-Jewish musicologist whose analytical theories gained prominence in the U.S. after World War II. (Schenker is taught less frequently in Europe.) The musicologist is noted for his innovative global approach to harmony, form, and structure; like many of his contemporaries, Schenker also held odious racist views. Ewell argued that music theory professors should teach Schenker’s racism alongside his approach to musical analysis, since Schenker himself believed they informed each other. (Similarly, Richard Wagner thought that his German nationalism informed his music.) What Ewell didn’t suggest was that Schenker be removed from music theory curricula altogether. After giving students all the facts, Ewell continued, professors can “let [them] decide what to do” with Schenker’s theoretical approach.

Music theory training, particularly at conservatories, crams a large amount of material into a short amount of time, so Ewell’s suggestion would presumably cut into training on various aspects of Western music: voice leading, species counterpoint, fugue, sonata form, score reading. But only his call to contextualize Schenker led to backlash. When the Journal of Schenkerian Studies published its collection of 15 largely critical responses to Ewell’s talk, most of the theoreticians rejected the idea of their students spending less time with Schenker.

Ewell’s broader thesis—that American music theory studies should expand to include other music besides European classical music—should not be controversial. The variety of American musical heritage directly reflects the diversity of its population. In the Europe of Schenker’s lifetime, composers were already questioning the kind of functional harmony he specialized in, and examining “non-Western, non-white” music, where other parameters besides harmonic motion often have greater priority. Our understanding of Debussy, for example, is poorer without an idea of the Japanese music and culture which fascinated him.

When Ewell asked his audience of professors to “cede some territory to non-Western, non-white music theories in the academy,” he was asking them to consider musics with extremely rich theoretical backgrounds–not to mention compositions that sound fantastic. But he was also asking professors to introduce college students to music that helps them understand Western classical music after the early 20th century. Compositions by Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Claude Vivier, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and many others are unexplainable by Schenkerian analysis, but enriched through an understanding of “non-white” music. Even if universities’ only goal was giving students a good education about European classical music—and that should be a debatable proposition in the 21st century—it would still be incomplete to teach them the music of the above composers without insight into the sounds of the wider world.

Judging by the responses in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Ewell’s most provocative rhetoric was to make an explicit connection between the tonal hierarchies of Schenkerian analysis and the racial hierarchies of Schenker’s dismal world view. Theorist Charles Burkhart wrote, for example, that Ewell “goes way over the top when he equates Schenker’s ideas on the inequality of the races with his statement on the inequality of the tones of the scale, and, likewise, equates white control over blacks with the Urlinie’s control of the subsequent structural levels. This is to confuse apples and oranges to an extreme degree.”

I’m not a Schenkerian scholar, so it’s difficult for me to say to what extent the theorist meant these ideas to overlap. Ewell, however, did not invent the analogy between political hierarchies and those of Western functional harmony. One way of describing the 12-tone system pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg is in terms of the “equal rights” of pitches and the “emancipation” of dissonance. In 1978, composer Gérard Grisey wrote of spectral music: “Between tonal or neo-tonal hierarchy and serial or neo-serial egalitarianism there exists a third way: to recognize and accept difference. Ultimately we seek to avoid both leveling and ‘colonization.’” Precisely because they are invented, abstract musical systems frequently reflect the way we think about the world.

At its best, music theory creates simplified models that help us understand how compositions are conceived and constructed while leaving space for the mystery of artistic intervention. At its worst, it reduces composition to a numbers game, and dismisses enigmatic moments—often the most powerful ones—as irrelevant. In that sense, Ewell was right to call for a broader music theory curriculum. A wider variety of theoretical perspectives has a chance to deepen our appreciation of both the systematic and the ineffable aspects of musical creation.

Was this a debate about a narrow teaching issue in the specialized field of music theory, or a moral question that cut to the heart of how we treat our fellow humans? In the now familiar rage cycle of social media (exacerbated by the loneliness of the COVID-19 pandemic) Ewell’s original talk was followed by backlash upon backlash. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies dedicated most of its issue to Ewell’s talk; the denizens of musicology Twitter responded, often in the hyperbolic fashion typical of the medium, to the critiques in the Journal; the Society for Music Theory published an open letter criticizing the issue; graduate students at the University of North Texas referred to the issue as “platforming racist sentiments” and claimed that “the actions of Dr. Jackson—both past and present—are particularly racist and unacceptable”; the university opened a review into the editorial practices of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies; Jackson told his side of the story to the right-wing National Review. Then Jackson filed suit against the UNT Board of Regents, for retaliation in violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights; and against the signers and endorsers of an open letter published by UNT graduate students, for defamation.

Though the debate involved overheated rhetoric on both sides of the issue, Jackson’s legal escalation was the equivalent of bringing a Mahler hammer to a concert of 16th-century madrigals. What had started as a specialized debate around the relevance of Schenkerian analysis for contemporary music students came to resemble so many of the other conversations in our hyperpolarized society. Jackson now styles himself an embattled defender of the classical canon and its geniuses from the woke, cancelling, ignorant hordes. The irony is that the political system into which this role fits is so oversimplified and based on false assumptions that it would probably never pass muster if, adapted to music, it surfaced in a Schenkerian’s classroom. In our 21st-century culture wars, it often seems like the only chords are I and V.

Oddly, considering that he is not named as a defendant in the suit, a former doctoral student of Jackson’s named Levi Walls emerges as the villain of the court filings. Dozens of pages are dedicated to their email exchanges, largely covering academic banalities such as recommendations, scholarships, and meetings. As Walls and Jackson began planning the Journal’s response to Ewell’s plenary, in November 2019, Walls wrote of his broad political agreements with Ewell’s talk while noting skepticism toward some of his particular criticisms of Schenkerian analysis:

I personally carry an extraordinary amount of white guilt and disgust for the state of my own country’s politics. Despite these caveats, and the fact that Ewell and I obviously share political views, I find some of his points to be extremely suspect.

But after the issue appeared and the backlash grew, Walls apparently had a change of heart. A few days after publication, he wrote a Facebook post apologizing for his involvement: “I feared to do anything other than grin and bear a job that I knew was harmful to UNT, the field of music theory, people of color, and basic human decency. For that cowardice, I am truly sorry.” In his affidavit for the lawsuit, Jackson responded that Walls “buckled almost the moment that this illiberal and repressive attack on free and open expression began.” For Jackson, the excesses of “wokeness” seemed to be the most convincing explanation for Walls’s betrayal. Of course, the only person who can know what changed for Walls is Walls himself. It seems at least possible he experienced a genuine moral awakening.

Systematic thinking is only as useful as its ability to tolerate change and contradiction. Faced with Walls’s reconsideration, Jackson seemed unable to process a development that cast doubt on the musical and political frameworks through which he viewed the world. In that sense, Walls’s repudiation of his involvement with the Journal of Schenkerian Studies was much like Ewell’s lecture. Both show the pain, and the necessity, of questioning our deeply-held ways of thinking. —JAB.

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Present Imperfect

“Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present,” Edward Said wrote in the opening of his 1993 book, Culture and Imperialism. “What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over, and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps.”

More than a quarter of a century later, another scholar, Philip Ewell, made a similar point: “One of music theory’s greatest feats is its ability to sever its own past from the present. If some historical aspect of a theory is unseemly or unsavory, we typically bury it, and move on. What, after all, do political, social, and cultural attitudes have to do with the content of someone’s underlying theoretical thought?”

This observation was published last September in Ewell’s article, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” which built and expanded on his 2019 plenary for the Society of Music Theory’s annual meeting. In both, Ewell cites sociologist Joe R. Feagin’s theory of the White Racial Frame as a buttress of American music theory. Such a framework relies on a language of avoidance around the topic of whiteness in order to maintain the status quo. It’s insidious enough that Ewell (who is Black) acknowledges that he is, figuratively, a white music theorist.

I covered Ewell’s plenary last month for VAN, along with its use of music theorist Heinrich Schenker’s documented racist worldviews—and the subsequent downplaying of these views by Schenkerian scholars—as a case study for his argument. I also documented the responses to Ewell’s plenary that were hastily (by peer-review standards) collected, edited, and published as a special symposium in the annual Journal of Schenkerian Studies for its 2020 issue.

In and of itself, a symposium of responses isn’t an issue. It’s a fairly common feature of academic journals that comes with an accompanying set of editorial standards. However, in the case of the fallout that resulted from this edition of the JSS, it’s impossible to sever the basics from the particulars.  

Timothy Jackson, who at the time co-edited the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, came up with the idea for what became the 15 responses to Ewell’s talk. He also contributed a response of his own, linking Ewell’s discussion of Schenker’s racism without examining that Schenker was Jewish (he died in 1935, but his wife was killed in Theresienstadt) to Black anti-Semitism. At one point, Jackson even invoked a deadly December 2019 attack on a Hasidic community in Jersey City, perpetrated two Black assailants.

“Of course, the reason that Black anti-Semitism is soft-pedaled, excused, ignored, and even applauded, is that for too long Blacks themselves have been the object of racism,” Jackson concluded. “Yet history does not absolve African Americans of anti-Semitism.”

As many in the music theory and musicology fields were quick to point out, the knee-jerk response to decentralize whiteness and anti-Blackness as the topic of conversation was precisely what Ewell was highlighting in his talk. “It simply proved every point that I was trying to make,” Ewell told me in an interview last December regarding the Journal’s publication.

It takes a special amount of compartmentalization and moral calculus to both sever the past from the present (as many responses did with regards to Schenker’s racism) while also accusing a fellow scholar of performing the same act of severance. But, re-listening to Ewell’s plenary, this isn’t a fair comparison. Rather than rely on an oppressor-victim dichotomy, Ewell implicates his mentor, the late musicologist Allen Forte, his father, and even himself in being part of the system that enables a White Racial Frame. He does this not to condemn, but to connect. Drawing attention to these dormant connections can begin to reshape avoidance language, allowing music theory to move beyond the paper-doll platitudes of performative allyship.

None of this is especially new or revolutionary. In 1993, Said was quick to point out the “glibness” with which people would both-sides an issue. His cautions against essentialism and polarization from this time may as well have been predictors of an online discourse that prioritizes algorithms over knowledge.

I wish I could be more surprised that Jackson first posited a JSS response to Ewell’s SMT presentation before having actually watched the plenary (which was posted online for Society members directly following the conference).

“I have not watched it yet,” he wrote to one of his students a week after the Society’s annual meeting, “because I suppose that I will find it difficult to put up with.”

In over 100 pages of emails related to the Journal’s Ewell symposium, Jackson’s own essay begins to take shape. In one email sent a few days after the note quoted above, he invokes the theme of demagoguery that would later find its way into his published response:

I have been thinking that all demagogues have this in common: they use widespread legitimate grievances – here generalized racism in the US and the challenges it poses to academics of color – to lash out against perceived targets of opportunity. That is what Hitler did with the Jews, and what Trump does today with non-White immigrants and others: in this case, does Ewell seize upon Schenker and Schenkerians – mostly Jews, and mostly immigrants fleeing the Nazis – and blame them for the paucity of Blacks in the field of music theory?

These emails are part of a 369-page lawsuit that Jackson filed earlier this month. The defendants named include eight members of the UNT Board of Regents and 18 members of the University’s division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology (17 faculty members and one PhD student who is also a teaching fellow). In the complaint, Jackson alleges violations of his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process in the wake of the Journal’s publication and the university’s response. (An ad hoc review panel determined in November that “a fundamental power asymmetry in the management of the journal” had resulted in editorial mismanagement and violations of ethical standards for peer-reviewed publications and recommended restructuring the JSS editorial team.) All 369 pages of Jackson’s filing were quickly circulated in a public Google Drive folder.

In the spirit of due process, I read all 369 pages of Jackson’s filing before writing this. This includes one of his initial emails to his colleagues, regarding the call for papers in response to Ewell and how to clarify why the Journal is soliciting responses to this particular talk. Jackson reiterates to several members of the UNT faculty (including some now named as defendants) that this is due to what he characterizes as Ewell’s “attack” on Schenker, Schenkerians, and Schenkerian methodology.

This sense of defensiveness, an “us-versus-them” mentality, can be read throughout the documented editorial process. A line in Jackson’s essay equating ethnomusicologists to the beetle in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is brought up for revisions (“I like it,” writes colleague and JSS co-editor Stephen Slottow, “but it ain’t diplomatic and, in these hysterical times, could be seized upon as an example of intolerance and chauvinism by those who are looking for such examples [Ewell, for instance].”) In another email, Jackson says he contacted the widow of Allen Forte “pointing out my disgust that Ewell, a former student [of Forte’s], accused Allen of ‘whitewashing’ Schenker’s racism.… She agrees with me and she wishes me to respond – properly – and in due course.”

To what extent do our actions and beliefs define us? To what extent are those actions and beliefs fixed versus malleable? These seem to be the questions at the heart of the defensive streak that runs through these emails. But the fallacy of a binary between good and bad, racist and not-racist, erases the fact that perfectly decent people can also say and do things that shore up a racist system. “It doesn’t make us bad people,” Ewell says of this. “It makes us people.”

The question then becomes how we react when confronted with the divergence between our intent and impact. Jackson’s filing, with its supporting exhibits stretching from A to V, carries a “thud” effect that eclipses a 22-minute plenary or a 29-page academic article. In some exhibits, emails are repeated—once as part of a compendium, and again as a standalone note or thread. Other exhibits present dense email chains with multiple recipients out of order. There is an overall effect of overwhelm; a deluge of information and the question of what it all means.

Litigation is taxing on a financial, time, and mental level. As Harvard Medical School’s Larry H. Strasburger wrote in 1999, even defendants who are successfully exonerated “will still undergo personal suffering despite having been vindicated…[which] does not necessarily restore the self confidence eroded by the demoralization and isolation that litigants often experience. Exoneration does not salve the bruised sense of personal integrity that so many defendants feel, even those who are innocent of the claims or charges against them.”

Jackson filed a lawsuit against members of his university’s Board of Regents in their official capacities. But he also named 17 colleagues—and a student in his own department. With time, money, and mental bandwidth all at a premium for most this year, a lawsuit threatens to monopolize all three. Regardless of the outcome of this case, Jackson will in some way win through this flex of power.

This, too, illustrates Ewell’s original thesis. Quoting a 2019 McSweeney’s article, Ewell notes that author Chandler Dean lays bare the dilemma of equity in music theory. The article’s title: “How Can I Help to Promote Diversity without Relinquishing Any of My Power?—OG.

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.

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