Music Theory’s Colour Blindness

North American music theory currently faces a veritable scandal. At the 2019 annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, the African American scholar Philip Ewell presented a plenary talk on the white racial frame in music theory, elaborating on the structural and institutionalised discrimination of non-white people in academia, and examining how Schenkerian analysis is affected by Heinrich Schenker‘s racism and ideas of white supremacy. An extended written version of this piece recently appeared in Music Theory Online—but even before it was published, a group of male white scholars penned a series of reactions which they assembled in a new issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, repudiating Ewell’s criticism in a most unscholarly way, not giving him a chance to respond, and dispensing with their own peer-reviewing routines. I am severely shocked at some of these reactions (some of which are cited in this blogpost), at the harsh ad hominem attacks directed towards Ewell and, to some extent, the overtly anti-Black bias uttered by some distinguished proponents of the discipline. In their defense of established views and practices, and in the obvious goal of denigrating their opponent, the contributors involuntarily proved some of the points of racial framing previously addressed by Ewell. The whole affair is, in my humble opinion, an absolute disgrace.

The other question is what we—beyond expressing solidarity with Philip Ewell, which I wholeheartedly endorse—can do in Germany to raise awareness, expand the canon, and make music theory and musicology more ethnically diverse. I suggest we take some of the steps proposed in the MTO article: make ethnomusicology and non-western music theory compulsory subjects for undergraduates, invite persons of colour as keynote speakers, introduce awards for antiracist scholarship in music, and implement antiracist measures in judging panels and application committees. These would be some of the challenges posed to the Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie and Gesellschaft für Musikforschung for the near future.

Teaching, Examining, and Diversity

A challenging summer term at Robert Schumann Hochschule Düsseldorf is over now. After an intense period of designing classes and tutorials, online teaching, and examining with an unexpectedly high workload, I’m glad to have some less busy times ahead of me. This is the written music theory test I devised and assigned to my second-year students, covering music by female and male composers from France and Germany in equal parts. It’s so easy to enhance the repertoire canon and create a bit of diversity at least in teaching, even though this will not change anything in the classical music business. Yet I assume it is the will that matters.

A Stunning Organ Recital

Dear community, I need to direct your attention to a fabulous organist and improviser of whose skilfulness I was regrettably unaware so far. Some of you might know Wolfgang Seifen, a professor in Berlin and principal organist at Emperor William Memorial Church. Here is a recording of an entirely improvised recital which he performed at Altenberg Abbey last year. His stupendous technique and versatility in different forms and genres literally blew my mind. Hope this will leave you similarly speechless.

Assailable Eponyms

The Berlin public transportation company BVG has announced to rename U-Bhf Mohrenstraße, a subway station located in the historical city centre, to Glinkastraße. While it is justified to question the present name as it refers to people of colour with a term that is no longer considered politically correct, some commenters now claimed that the new namesake, Russian composer Mikhail Glinka who died in Berlin in 1857, is just an equally inappropriate choice since he was a Tsarist nationalist and reportedly made anti-Semitic statements in his letters. Still, the discussion was sparked only by the name of the subway station, not of the street it is (or will be) named after, and Glinkastraße itself is just as indisputed as Richard-Wagner-Platz. In my opinion, it is sort of anachronistic to have things named after persons at all. Human beings are notoriously immoral and vicious, and if you only try hard enough, you will find something compromising about virtually anybody. Let’s just go for some alternative and innoxious designations. In this particular case: what about Mitte West station?

A Musical Dollhouse

Maus and Klaus enter the stage! My dear colleague Bernadett Kis and her team of Puppenphilharmonie Berlin have produced a lovely video series for children, starring two puppets, Louis the mouse and his neighbour Klaus the mole, as well as five human musicians. I had the pleasure of contributing the lyrics for the title song. A new episode will be released every Tuesday on the web channels of Tonhalle Düsseldorf. Do have a look with your little ones!