Tuesday, June 5, 2018

“An Appropriate and Exemplary Literature”: The JAMS Special Issue on Music, Race, and Ethnicity

Emily Dolan, a member of the JAMS Editorial Board, and George Lewis, co-chair of the AMS Committee on Race and Ethnicity, sat down recently for a discussion of how the recent JAMS Call for Papers for a special issue on music, race, and ethnicity can help not only in broadening the scholarly conversation around these topics, but also in asserting a central role for musicology in exploring the crucial issues of our time in a period of rapid change.

Please note: The deadline for article submissions for this special issue is 1 July 2018.

ED:  The idea for this Special Issue of JAMS on Music, Race, and Ethnicity came out of the work that the Committee on Race and Ethnicity has been doing.

GL:  Yes. This special issue idea has been a couple of years in the making. Like a number of the interesting ideas the committee has considered, this one came from Judy Tsou, who serves with me as co-chair.

ED:  How did the Committee come to be?

GL: One spur to action was that controversial Musicology Now blog post about teaching Don Giovanni in prison.  I don't think the author really meant to discuss race, but the responses to that post brought out a lot of impatience with models of discursive colorblindness that a lot of humanities and social science fields have abandoned, and which seemed naïve to a lot of people who felt that their experience was being cavalierly dismissed.

Ellen Harris, who was AMS president, published an open letter to the AMS membership, and asked a number of us to formulate a committee to create some effective responses to these and other ongoing issues. Her idea was that one of the models could be the original Committee on the Status of Women, which became the Committee on Women and Gender.  The working title became the rather unwieldy “Planning Committee on the Status of Race and Ethnicity in the Profession,” and Judy and I were named co-chairs.

The Planning Committee’s main remit was to establish the current, permanent AMS Committee, for which a five-part remit was developed.  Perhaps the most crucial parts of the committee’s vision are around scholarship and pedagogy, the lifeblood aspects of what we do.  The others--professional development, governance, and atmosphere--proceed from the first two.  Without scholarship and pedagogy you don't get professional development, and the resulting atmosphere in the profession becomes impoverished. This is because smart people have choices, and if you drive the best people away, what you're left with is the second team. A lot of fields have found this out.

The Planning Committee’s initial effort was to organize the special session on “Race, Ethnicity and the Profession” at the 2016 Vancouver AMS meeting.  What came out of the session supported and augmented many of the positions that were coming out of the responses to the blog post, the #AMSSOWHITE hashtag, and so on, in that was that there was a lot of professional despair out there about whether people of color had any real purchase on the profession. We already had Matthew D. Morrison's article in the 2012 JAMS colloquy, basically warning people that that that the profession seemed to be driving away some of its brightest scholars of color. Concerns were expressed that young scholars, particularly scholars of color, would be or had already been penalized for working on race, or for speaking out about these issues in their writing, or that issues of race and ethnicity were considered a peripheral area of musicological scholarship, which could in turn influence hiring, awards, and grant and subvention decisions.

This meeting reminded me of the session on “The Musical Aesthetics of Race and Ethnicity” at the 2009 meeting in Philadelphia, which Ellie Hisama organized with the Committee on Cultural Diversity. The key questions were about how race and ethnicity mediate musical creation, reception, and understanding, but a lot of issues of atmosphere and professional development also came up, especially after Ellie presented some audio of Eileen Southern expressing her frustration with the profession and with her colleagues--basically, “They don’t care about what I do.”  Hearing that in Southern’s own voice made a lasting impression on me, and speaking with some of the scholars of color who’ve been in the trenches much longer than I have—Josephine Wright, Johann Buis, Gayle Murchison, others--has been very enlightening indeed in terms of the long and complicated history of the profession’s engagement with race.

ED: The idea that questions of race are somehow not central to music and its history seems utterly untenable right now—both in the context of our discipline and in of our current political climate. This also reminds me of questions about the profession and professionalization that I think Bonnie Gordon expressed so well at the 2016 meeting, in terms of what we can do to help the pipeline.  She stressed that it is not just the job market—it goes back even to college, and what we can do to help students prepare to apply for graduate school.

GL:  Exactly. Judy and I brought the findings from the session and the communications we received to the AMS Board, which, under Martha Feldman’s leadership as president, has been very supportive in undertaking a number of substantial actions.  In 2017 at Rochester the Committee was supported in producing a well-attended session on “Critical Race Theory and Music.” The panel included the legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris, who was one of the originators of the field of critical race theory and who is very well versed in music and culture (she is a member of the board of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). In 2018 in San Antonio another session on this topic will be held with the historian George Lipsitz as speaker.  The idea of these sessions, which was originally suggested by Suzanne Cusick, is to present an interdisciplinary context in which people see not only that we in musicology can draw on how race is studied in many other fields, but how scholars in those fields are able to draw upon insights from musicology.

ED: So, what are your hopes for this issue? What are you hoping this issue will do, and what would you hope to see in it?

GL: There’s this great quote from Southern, writing in a special issue on music in the popular magazine Black World in 1973: “If we black folk are serious about our commitment to the rediscovery and the redefining of our heritage in the fine arts, our scholars must take upon themselves the responsibility for developing an appropriate and exemplary literature.”  I think that a special issue like this can take a leading role in establishing that literature.  That's what I want to see. The Board has also supported the establishment of an AMS award in Critical Race Studies, another great idea by Judy Tsou, which again puts scholarship up front and encourages the creation of a community of researchers and critical engagement.

ED: The special issue has a very capacious call, as people will notice.

GL: The call was a collective project that incorporated suggestions from the Committee on Race and Ethnicity and the JAMS editorial board. So there were a lot of bright minds putting this together, and of course, the submissions will be reviewed by the JAMS editorial board, subject to the peer review process and procedural guidelines for the journal.  So we can expect these articles to reflect the customary rigor of those processes, while also opening the window as wide as possible to a great diversity of topics. There is no reason why we can't imagine work on race, say, in the context of 18th-century comic opera and the project of chattel slavery. Jann Pasler and Ralph Locke have been connecting these kinds of dots among race, colonialism, and the Western tradition, as well as Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh’s book, Western Music and its Others. For musicologists to explore these connections enhances the scope of our influence in the massively interdisciplinary and intercultural landscape of modern scholarship.

ED: We’re seeing a wealth of scholarship on race right now. Two influential early volumes were Guthrie Ramsey’s Race Music and Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman’s Music and the Racial Imagination.  More recently, there was Olivia Bloechl’s recent conference on race, empire, and early music, as well as her co-edited volume on difference in music scholarship. Naomi Andre’s new book on black opera has just hit the shelves, there is a new volume by Ana Alonso-Minutti, Eduardo Herrera, and Alejandro Madrid on global Latinx experimental music scenes, and Nina Sun Eidsheim’s work has been very important to many in the field.  Of course this is not even a summary, but a sample.

GL: We’ve had student initiatives already in this regard. When he was editor-in-chief of Current Musicology, Morrison anticipated this special issue of JAMS in 2012 by editing a special issue of the journal on sound, race, and performance. The journal just published another one on Black Sound Studies.

We’ve had JAMS colloquies that have addressed race and ethnicity as part of the overall mix, but this special issue puts the study of race and music in prime time, so to speak, and signals the willingness of the profession to tackle thorny issues that crucially intersect with how we see ourselves as societies. I feel that no one else can do this in quite the same way as musicologists, because of the centrality of music to human experience. If you're going to talk about race as a part of that experience, musicologists should really be able to draw from these wellsprings of experience to do amazing scholarship.

ED: It would be wonderful if this issue could become a kind of landmark, not just in musicology, but also for other fields engaged in critical race studies. Speaking for the editorial board, we hope that this special issue paves the way for future scholarship on race in JAMS. Our work is far from over after this issue.

GL: Of course there is much more to be done, but at these meetings a lot of hope was expressed that something could be done to transform the field, and I think that this JAMS special issue can help greatly in exercising that effect.


Emily I. Dolan is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music at Harvard University. Dolan has served on the AMS Council, the Pisk Prize committee, and is currently on the Editorial Board of JAMS and the 2018 Program Committee for the Annual Meeting in San Antonio. She is the author of The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Recently she guest edited an issue of Opera Quarterly (“Vocal Organologies and Philologies”) and she is the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Timbre.

George Lewis is Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Lewis’s other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), and a United States Artists Walker Fellowship. An Honorary Member of the American Musicological Society, Lewis has served on the AMS Council and has co-chaired the Committee on Cultural Diversity in addition to his current role as co-chair of the Committee on Race and Ethnicity.  His 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) received the AMS Music in American Culture Award, and he is the co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016). Lewis holds honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh, New College of Florida, and Harvard University.

See https://music.columbia.edu/bios/george-e-lewis

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