Friday, September 25, 2015

That Debate, again

by Bonnie Gordon

2015 is a big year for fiftieth anniversaries in music. In 1965 Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk festival, members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys all took LSD for the first time, and Louis Armstrong played a Cold War cultural ambassador concert behind the Iron Curtain, sponsored by the CIA’s cultural arm. Outside of music, the civil rights movement made great strides with three Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act. As part of the war on poverty President Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile in musicology Joseph Kerman and Edward Lowinsky extended their acrimonious debate at the 1964 American Musicological Society meeting into print. In case you have forgotten, weren’t born yet, or haven’t been following the AMS blog, Kerman offered a “profile for American Musicology” rooted in criticism and designed to shed the shackles of European tradition. Lowinsky responded angrily at the annual meeting and in a 1965 article entitled “The Character and Purpose of American Musicology: A Reply to Joseph Kerman.”

I begin with Selma and Medicaid not to diminish Kerman and Lowinsky or to wonder why a group of mostly white male musicologists meeting in Washington DC in 1964 fought in a rather ungentlemanly style about music criticism (though that question has crossed my mind). Rather, I bring this up to suggest that for Kerman and Lowinsky there was a context for their confrontation within and outside of the academy. Their exchange was apparently a shouting match, and while it may not have been clear on the surface, their shouting had everything to do with the Holocaust and the Cold War.

Kerman’s presentation of his method as a self-consciously American endeavor to which some, Lowinsky included, were inevitably “alien”—not American enough—enraged Lowinsky. Kerman said, “None of this must be taken as chauvinism. The thanks we owe to German musicologists and German-trained musicologists are too obvious, the debt too great and too deep-rooted and (at least in my case) too affectionate. All the same, our identity as scholars depends on growth away from an older alien tradition into something recognizably our own.” Lowinsky, who had fled the Nazis and had a difficult time at first making his way in this country, understood the term “alien” as reminiscent of Nazi vocabulary. “I do know that Kerman is playing a dangerous game with dangerous words that the older generation has heard before and fervently hoped never to hear again. Nor is Professor Kerman so young or so innocent that he can claim to be unaware of the twentieth century use of the terms ‘alien’ and ‘native,’ in matters of art and scholarship.” Kerman, hearing himself compared to the Nazis, could only be furious. Think what would happen if at our annual meeting next month if someone called an individual scholar—not the discipline as a whole—a white supremacist or a rapist.

The aftermath of that debate situated Lowinsky falsely, I think, as the enemy of progress. By the 1990s Lowinsky stood as a straw man for the so-called New Musicology—itself a vexed and problematic term. Kerman was not to my mind the most radical thing at the 1964 meeting. His paper appeared on a panel with the much less famous Donald M. McCorkle, who in his “Finding A Place for American Studies in American Musicology” called for a move away from European music as the mainstay of the discipline. McCorkle effectively challenged American musicology to become less deaf to the sound world it inhabited. He asserted that a discipline that by definition focused on art music of the Western tradition left students unprepared to deal with music from outside Europe in general but from North America, in particular.

This is not a bad time to revisit 1965 and not because we need to take sides. Rather, it’s worth revisiting now because their passion about our purpose serves as an important reminder that whether or not we like it we need to think hard about our purpose and our profile. Our graduate students face a world where the humanities, the liberal arts, the arts, and even the University are under attack. In thinking about political agendas we need to look beyond those scholars who seem the most political and public. Lowinsky may be a good lesson here. His intellectual work, outside the university, was deeply committed to fighting McCarthyism and segregation.

Black Mountain College Catalogue, 1948-49
Lowinsky would likely not have been behind some of the efforts that in music fields currently seem the most political: the committee on women and gender for example. But he had an explicit political agenda long before anyone had any ideas about “public musicology.” He pushed it hard beginning with his first job at Black Mountain College, a North Carolina institution that prided itself on intellectual and artistic freedom. In summer 1945, Lowinsky directed the Black Mountain College Summer Music Institute on polyphony. The Institute took a radical stance against segregation: following college policy, it ignored state segregation laws and promoted integration. That summer two black students attended the Institute, and a concert by the African American tenor Roland Hayes attracted more listeners than any other at the festival. Hayes, who had largely been barred from singing in this country, performed a mix of classical pieces and African American spirituals to an integrated audience seated together in defiance of the law. Hayes participated in the festival not just for musical reasons but also as part of a conscious commitment to social justice.

We could all probably stand to be as brave as Kerman and Lowinsky both were in and out of their field. When music scholars today debate the profile and purposes of their field they have to answer different questions and face different daemons. No one doubts that American music is a legitimate scholarly topic and no one doubts the legitimacy of American musicology. There are even papers by American scholars of music about Bob Dylan going electric and about rock singers and hallucinogenic drugs. But people do doubt the purpose of the humanities, a liberal arts education, and arts in the public schools. I hope that there will always be a place for detailed and esoteric papers on unknown composers and for exposing students to gorgeous musics. One of the most important things some of us do may well be to get our undergraduates to listen carefully—sometimes teaching listening comes just from drilling sonata form into their heads and sometimes it comes from kinds of music that neither Lowinsky nor Kerman would have wanted to hear or study. And sometimes it comes from facilitating hard conversations in the classroom.

Kerman and Lowinsky both had prestigious jobs and long publication records by the time they shouted at each other in 1964. They had also shared an intense musicality with scores of students. These key facts make all of the difference. So we, and now I mean “we” with tenure, need not only to celebrate the progress that has been made but also ask ourselves why, seventy years after Lowinsky brought Roland Hayes to Black Mountain College, music departments remain so homogeneous. We have to ask hard questions about the continued gender imbalance of our field and about the continued lack of racial and class diversity. And we with job security need to think very hard about the enormous problem of contingent labor in institutions of higher learning. I’d personally rather not see successful male (or female) musicologists erupt into shouting matches at conferences any time soon, but to address these hard issues with a dose of the courage and conviction that both Kerman and Lowinsky had will go a very long way.

Bonnie Gordon is Associate Professor at the University of Virginia. Her research interests center on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and the affective potential of the human voice. Her newest project has the intriguing title Voice Machines: The Castrato, the Cat Piano, and Other Strange Sounds.

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