Monday, February 22, 2016

The Perils of Public Musicology

by Bonnie Gordon

The online community of the American Musicological Society is currently exploding around a post by Pierpaolo Polzonetti called “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison.” The post, about teaching opera in prison, sparked both harsh criticism of Polzonetti’s efforts and writings as well as important discussions about implicit and explicit biases in our field.  I am weighing in as someone who runs a program that pairs undergraduates with under-resourced, mostly African American kids for a variety of arts programs and is currently designing a community engagement curriculum for the College of Arts and Sciences at UVa.  While I find the post problematic, I fear that calling Polzonetti and his defenders racists risks turning this moment into a twenty-first century version of the AMS 1964 meeting when Edward Lowinsky associated Joseph Kerman’s call for a native musicology that moved away from “alien” ideas with Nazism.

Polzonetti’s approach to teaching these prisoners, while perhaps logical in some music appreciation contexts, relies on repeating some of the most problematic stories musicologists tell their students and the public.  And despite criticism of the endeavor, there are numerous successful books-behind-bars, Shakespeare-behind-bars, and music-behind-bars programs.  It’s wrong to assume that classical music speaks to everyone and that watching Don Giovanni will solve the problems of men who are victims of the carceral state.  But it’s also wrong to assume that classical music doesn’t speak to those men and that they shouldn’t get the chance to hear it.  It’s also gone relatively unnoticed that one of of the most problematic sentences in the post about is about an aria that’s a response to rape.  A rage aria and a rape scene are not the same thing.  Defusing violence with a Mozart score?  It sounds from the post like the men in the class had an emotional response to a musical moment.  If we think understanding affective emotional responses to music depends on the score than we have already lost the battle for inclusion.

The students in the Arts Mentors program that I founded used Polzonetti's post to think about the differences between traditional community service and community engagement which depends on using institutional resources to collaboratively (as in: with the community) address and solve challenges facing communities.  This is not sending academics out to “help.”  The students also pointed out that doing community engagement often comes with the risk of making big mistakes and almost always forces confrontations with horrifying biases.  Maybe it’s easier to write about decolonialization than it is to figure out how to actually do it.

Our program has had some spectacular failures and successes.  An ecoacoustic event gave the kids exposure to audio engineering and encouraged deep listening.  It got both undergraduates and students to visit a gorgeous city trail that many children had never been to.  But our trip to the UVa art museum started with a fourth grader saying about the University “it’s really dangerous, college kids get murdered here all the time.”  This was just after a male lacrosse player had murdered a female lacrosse student.  A music student pointed out that he had heard UVa students say that about the neighborhood most of the kids live in because people get murdered there all the time. In truth, we have a low murder rate here.  Then, a museum docent told the kids they could get arrested for touching the art.  Many of them have incarcerated relatives and the undergraduates were not equipped for the responses that triggered. We learned the hard way that when the kids we work with are enraptured by a classical music performance we can’t control the other patrons.  They don’t usually see thirty African American kids not dressed in concert hall attire and the result is often uncomfortable and sometimes downright racist.

What the community teaches us is far more profound than what we teach the community.  To capitalize on this opportunity, the program comes with an academic component for the students.  So instead of taking them to a Mozart opera and turning to the eighteenth century to argue for education as liberating and potentially taming, we begin by asking the students to do a close reading of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. In this document Jefferson, who founded our University, laid out his argument for exclusion of African Americans from American citizenship based in part on their (according to Jefferson) inherent inability to be creative thinkers and to have aesthetics.  The echoes of this are palpable in the deeply segregated arts scene in Charlottesville today and at the University of Virginia.

The disciplinary debates going on now should serve as a reminder that scholars who step outside of their training should do so with intention, with a willingness to fail, and with an eye for what they don’t know.  For example, 49% of the people incarcerated at the prison Polzonetti works in are people of color, according to their website.  Polzonetti named one inmate as African American and didn’t mention the race of any other.  This disjunction allows us to reinscribe myths of black criminality and violence.  Khalil Gibran Muhammad describes black criminality as “one of the most commonly cited and longest-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in the modern urban world.”  Writings on mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow and on the criminalization of black men, should have informed how Polzonetti wrote about his experience in a prison. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “The American response to crime cannot be divorced from a history of equating black struggle—individual and collective—with black villainy.  And so it is unsurprising that in the midst of the civil-rights movement, rising crime was repeatedly linked with black advancement.”  If I had been sent Polzonetti’s post as an outside reviewer, I would have suggested that he take into consideration the racial injustice inherent in the carceral state.

The AMS has invested in public musicology – not only through a blog, but also in its support of the Library of Congress Lectures, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Lectures, and via other venues, as well. Those efforts to me feel like arts education and outreach.  I see them as crucial but they will not address the issues around racial injustice and diversity that this blog post has brought to the fore.

Public musicology in these senses is is not the same thing as community engagement. Teaching opera in a prison certainly seems like one kind of “public musicology,” and like the kid of effort that could be community engagement.  If you take the suspension-to-prison pipeline seriously it’s likely that the men in Polzonetti's class didn’t even have the opportunities that were offered in their schools; if you are suspended you are not in school.  I usually don’t have the courage to write about community engagement because if I make a factual or rhetorical slip up talking about under-resourced African American kids in a town built by the enslaved, the consequences are devastating. That is not the case for writing about Monteverdi. 

I suggest that if the AMS truly wants the blog to be public-facing, that they might need to hire a paid, full-time, professional editor, and think hard about its content and who controls it. Scholars who usually traffic in long and not widely circulated articles need to understand the impact of words in the digital—not just print—age.  This blog is curated by excellent scholars.  But people who contribute to blogs like the New York Times and Slate are made to rewrite articles in ways that many academics would resist. These rewrites can make all the difference in getting a message across to a non-musicological audience in a format that is shorter and faster than most scholarly formats.  I’ve written controversial articles for large publics a few times and my friends who do public writing for a living told me not to read the anonymous comments which are often nasty and silencing.  I usually don’t. But an article I wrote for Slate about rape culture included death threats so I had to.  It had over 1,000 comments, including calls for the University to fire me.  Even then, such a blog would not deal at all with the problems of inequities of all kinds within the field, the societies, the classrooms, and the journals.

The AMS blog comprises a disciplinary effort towards public relevance.  I suspect that most of the blog’s readers are music scholars.  I am more concerned about what a post like this one triggers for scholars of color.  Particularly those of us with tenure and some institutional clout should have already been very worried about how those scholars experience our conferences, our departments, our music making spaces, and our classrooms.  At the same time, Polzonetti’s post doesn’t stand in for the racial inequity and elitism in music fields, including ethnomusicology, which are bound up with the colonial project.  The field as a whole, like the arts and like liberal arts all told, have to ask hard questions that will likely make us fight and will probably make us give up some things we love.  How does the discipline move forward when our field still assumes the hegemony of the classical tradition and when most university programs still require good classical music chops?  Classical music is not inclusive; you need a certain amount of money to take music lessons, and concerts have excluded all but the most elite for generations.  Charlottesville’s free music program in the public schools is not alone in being predominantly affluent and white.  As music scholars feel pressure from our colleagues and our institutions to find public relevance, we have to think hard about how to do this effectively and ethically.  But we also try to do it constructively and without demonizing individual scholars.

Bonnie Gordon is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Virginia. Her research centers on the experience of sound in 16th and 17th century Europe. She is working on a book entitled, Voice Machines: The Castrato, the Cat Piano, and Other Strange Sounds and working on a long-term project closer to home called Jefferson’s Soundscapes. She runs UVa’s Arts mentor program; a program that pairs UVa students with under-resourced  children in Charlottesville for a variety of arts experience.


  1. I would agree that it would be good to have a full-time staff member who works on public musicology, and I would also suggest that this person not be a musicologist. More beneficial to us would be an experienced public historian or public scientist.

  2. A great response. Part of what I learned from this whole experience is that public musicology is good not only for the public, but also for musicology.

    I'm glad to see Musicology Now is facilitating a continuation of this conversation. It does seem like adding more diverse staff (in every sense of the word, including from other fields) is in order.


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  4. (Having a strange time with the Blogger platform's commenting, sorry about multiple posts)

    Thanks so much for a great piece of writing on this topic. I agree with so much about what you've said, and hope others will read it. I particularly appreciate the focus on the failures as well as successes in publicly engaged work. Failure is so common and can be such an important tool for really learning, as long as we are open and responsive to it.

    Gabriel Solis

  5. I support the argument of hiring a professional editor for the blog, but would suggest that it might be advantageous to have several editors drawn from different backgrounds and experiences (and perhaps even stages of career). If anything, this incident has demonstrated just how divergent interpretations can be when a text is viewed from multiple vantage points.

  6. [Posted on behalf of Susan Key:]

    Thank you, Bonnie Gordon, for a thoughtful post in response to the heated exchanges stimulated by Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s post on teaching opera in a maximum security prison. I agree that there are perils in public musicology and that engaging in the public arena, particularly with under-served populations, brings the near certainty of making mistakes. We have also seen this week that there is a group in our profession that will be delighted to jump in and point out your mistakes – no doubt in their zeal to help you be more successful at efforts that most of them will never undertake. As you point out, “maybe it’s easier to write about decolonialization than it is to figure out how to actually do it.”

    My perspective on this question is informed by my career as a public musicologist, in particular my role developing and directing the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score Education teacher professional development program. Over the six years of our grant, our program reached over 300 teachers and 35,000 students in three states.

    Our core repertoire was that of the western canon (the composers featured on Keeping Score media series as well as composers featured in the live Symphony performances the teachers attended as part of an annual Institute) – though we included other music relevant to that repertoire: shape note, blues, Russian and Jewish folk songs, to name a few – as well as a wide variety of local styles in the teachers’ own communities. The participants in our program reflected the school system demographics of their communities: teachers were mostly white middle class women; students were mostly underprivileged minorities: Hispanic, African American, and native American.

    Did our content and demographics create perils in working with these communities? Of course. Did we make mistakes? Of course. But far more important was the overwhelmingly positive response from teachers, students, and families in our program struggling within an educational system that was arts-starved, and that placed suffocating – even soul-killing -- pressure on teachers to produce higher test scores on standardized tests. There was nobody standing on rhetorical ceremony; we were way too busy trying to pool our collective skills and resources toward our common goal of improving the educational experience.

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  7. [Continuation of previous comment by Susan Key]

    We also recognized that in working under-served communities there was a peril in worrying that our commitment to the music of the western canon was something we should shy away from expressing for fear of being elitist. Why is it elitist to assert through both words and actions that the music of the western canon has a lot to offer to today’s students? That it presents an eloquent expression of the human experience, one still relevant in today’s world? I find it more patronizing to assume that I shouldn’t advocate for:

    · The middle school child who wrote of the way Beethoven’s music inspired him with a determination to persevere in the face of obstacles;

    · The first grade homeless children who earned a new respect from their classmates as a result of their resourcefulness in a classroom activity on soundscapes and the environment inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring;

    · The third grade child who was part of a tiny “band” that met in a storage room (essentially, a large closet) who brought her little brother to class because she was responsible for babysitting him while her parents picked crops.

    I could have identified these children by race or ethnicity – and if I had, it would have been because to me it helps conjure up their faces, not because I see them in some kind of ethnic cliché – a point that Prof. Polzonetti made in one of his responses.

    Did I find that some aspects of Prof. Polzonetti’s essay gave me pause? Yes. Others in the discussion have pointed out the way in which broad categorizations of a musical repertoire and identifying the race of a single student can strike the reader as racist. I would have also rephrased some of his remarks about the benefits of having a command of the technical aspects of music in order to make it clearer that these are not higher or more important than his students’ emotional responses, but rather a way of understanding and articulating how such a powerful emotional impact is achieved. My guess is that a lot of that happened anyway and that Prof. Polzonetti’s students – like all of our students – took away more from his enthusiasm for the material and his commitment to sharing his expertise with them than from any specific pedagogical content or approach.

    I am glad that the musicological community feels passionately about how we communicate, and I hope we are all open to constructive feedback. But I also hope that we can quit playing “gotcha” and start working collectively to make a difference in our world.

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