Music Theory, Narrative Constriction, and the Fix We’re In

Erich Korngold

Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, is a much-lauded man. His accolades include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His first book was short-listed for the Pulitzer and his second won a prize from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. His educational pedigree is impeccable: he entered Harvard from St. Albans and graduated summa (his thesis was on Joyce). His conversation—most recently he was interviewed about Wagner by the polymath economist Tyler Cowen—shows him to be sophisticated, thoughtful, and charming. Ross personifies institutional credibility. He is not a man one would expect to intentionally mislead his readers. Nor would one imagine his editors at the New Yorker would collaborate in a deception. Alas, this is what happened. And the account exemplifies our current crisis of institutional legitimacy—the Fix We’re In.

A Very 2020 Academic Story

In late 2019, the cellist, music theorist, and historian Phillip Ewell delivered a plenary address at the annual conference of the Society of Music Theory. His talk, titled “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” argued that the field is plagued by “structural racism.” Several months later, Ewell published an article which expanded on his talk and proposed a “reframing” of the discipline, along the lines of the approach now dubbed “anti-racist” (following the work of Ibram Kendi, among others).

Ewell devoted particular criticism to Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), who pioneered an influential approach to tonal analysis. Schenker was also a bigot, and Ewell’s talk provided examples—negative statements ranging over blacks, Slavs, and even the Japanese. Ewell argued that “it is no longer possible to cleave Schenker’s racism from his music theories” and that “Schenkerian theory is an institutionalized racialized structure—a crucial part of music theory’s white racial frame—that exists to benefit members of the dominant white race of music theory.” Ewell did not wish, on this account, to bar the study of Schenker. His proposal was more liberal:

I believe that, at a minimum, we must present Schenker’s work to our students in full view of his racist beliefs, and let our students decide what to do with that information. The study of Schenker and his music theories has “helped to legitimize harmful stereotypes” about blacks and other POC—we music theorists can no longer ignore this important fact.

Ewell’s argument struck a nerve in the small community of Schenkerian academics. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies (JSS), based at the University of North Texas, commissioned a response symposium as a rejoinder to Ewell’s talk.

As the symposium took shape, the assistant editor, a second year Ph.D. student named Levi Walls, became distressed. He found many of the response essays problematic and began offering substantive suggestions to the authors. JSS’s senior advisor, Professor Timothy Jackson, told him this was not his role. Walls became increasingly disturbed as the symposium proceeded in a direction that, in his own words, he “found to be disgusting.” He took action:

I set up a secret meeting with my department chair, specifically acknowledging that I was coming to him as a whistleblower because I was worried about the potential dangers that the journal posed for the College of Music and for rational discourse in music theory. My warning was not heeded and—although I feel that he had the best of intentions—he expressed reluctance to step in and control the actions of the journal. Furthermore, after my warning that Dr. Jackson was woefully ignorant about politically correct discourse and race relations, he rebutted that “Dr. Jackson did very well in the recent diversity and inclusion workshops.”

This account, so evocative of modern academic life, comes from an anguished Facebook note Walls posted on July 27, publicizing his concern with the symposium and expressing regret for his involvement. Walls’ distress is manifestly sincere, as is his concern that crossing Jackson could harm his career. Within days a group of UNT graduate students sent a letter to the administration calling for the dissolution of the Journal, as well as the investigation and potential removal of its faculty advisors. A letter from faculty supporting the students soon followed.

The next acts followed a familiar culture-war script. An open letter to the Society of Music Theory received over 900 signatures (including Ewell’s) and called for official censure of the JSS advisory board and a formal SMT acknowledgement “that American music theory is historically rooted in white supremacy.” The Society’s executive board published a statement of condemnation, alleging that several of the symposium’s essays contained anti-black statements and ad hominem attacks directed at Ewell. (The communication does not specify which statements these are.) The SMT’s official response further identifies procedural problems with the symposium, including inadequate peer review and the decision to include an anonymously authored contribution, which in the view of the board “are examples of professional misconduct, which in this case enables overtly racist behavior.”

On July 31, a mere four days after Walls’ post, the UNT administration announced a formal investigation to “examine objectively the processes followed in the conception and production of volume 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies.”

This action roused civil libertarian watchdogs. The non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter of concern to the UNT administration in early August. The letter includes a chronology, links to many of the documents referenced above, and sections with such illuminating titles as “The First Amendment Protects Faculty Teaching, Research, and Publishing”; “Investigations into Clearly Protected Expression Violate the First Amendment”; and “The First Amendment Bars UNT from Penalizing Scholarly Writing Others Find Offensive.”

That last heading is especially relevant. In Timothy Jackson’s own response essay, there is a two-paragraph section on black antisemitism. In it, he argues that Ewell’s (who is black) criticism of Schenker (who was Jewish) and the early Schenkerians (also mostly Jewish) “may be viewed as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black Anti-Semitism.” Even when viewed with utmost charity, this statement is deeply misguided. One can understand why so many readers found it contemptible. It is truly offensive to attribute bias to someone solely on the basis of their race.

A Most Artful Semicolon

If you have persevered this far, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Alex Ross, the New Yorker, or institutional collapse.

A recent Ross-authored New Yorker offering, titled “Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy in Classical Music” (September 14) addresses a very 2020-culture-war topic. The subhead, couched in the imperative mode, does not leave much doubt as to how the author imagines this confrontation should be resolved: “The field must acknowledge a history of systemic racism while also giving new weight to Black composers, musicians, and listeners.”

In the course of developing these marching orders, Ross touches on the JSS/Ewell contretemps. Here is his gloss:

Shortly after Ewell’s article was published, a skirmish broke out in the music-theory community, incited not by the article itself but by a twenty-minute condensed version of the material that Ewell had presented at a conference seven months earlier. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies, which is based at the University of North Texas, chose to devote ninety pages to responses to that brief talk. Some were supportive, others dismissive; one accused Ewell, who is African-American, of exhibiting “Black anti-Semitism,” even though Ewell had not mentioned Schenker’s Jewishness. On social media, Ewell’s colleagues came to his defense and questioned the journal’s methodology. The historian Kira Thurman wrote, “Did the Journal of Schenkerian Studies really publish a response to Professor Ewell’s scholarship that was ‘anonymous’? Yes.” National Review and Fox News somehow stumbled on the episode and cast it as so-called cancel culture run amok; it was claimed that Ewell was trying to ban Beethoven, although nothing of the sort had been suggested.  [my emphasis]

Nowhere in his article does Ross mention:

  • That graduate students at the institution called for the JSS to be dissolved and for those responsible for the “issue” to be “held accountable.”
  • That over 900 people signed a formal letter to the Society of Music Theory advocating formal censor of the JSS advisory board.
  • That the University of North Texas initiated an official investigation of the Journal.
  • That the Executive Board of the Society of Music Theory published a condemnation alleging professional misconduct and overt racism.

These facts, one might imagine, could have helped explain to New Yorker readers why some viewed the episode as “cancel culture run amok.” We know, incidentally, that Ross was not ignorant of these events, for the first three are noted in the accounts by National Review and Fox News he references. Indeed, the only National Review article on the topic was written by Samantha Harris, a Senior Fellow at FIRE. The entire discussion in the article relates to academic freedom issues, and the concern that Jackson and JSS would be punished for protected speech. The only Fox News article likewise highlights the UNT investigation. Neither mentions Beethoven. Other careful accounts can be found published by Inside Higher Ed, the Dallas Observer, and the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Read with full context, the last sentence of Ross’ summary is truly remarkable, managing to deceive the reader in four separate ways. First, it expresses puzzlement at how an outfit like National Review could come across this obscure controversy—no doubt always unjustly trolling for red meat for their base! But there is no mystery. FIRE’s mandate is to protect academic freedom, and a FIRE affiliate wrote the article. Second, Ross omits the real concerns about academic freedom raised by the case—UNT is investigating the journal, and Jackson may yet face additional professional repercussions—and instead foregrounds a hysterical concern about canceling Beethoven. Third, it casts the dispute as a contrivance of right-wing media—mentioning National Review, and the bull-bait flag that is Fox, but not mainstream publications that covered the issue, or the involvement of the non-partisan FIRE. Last, in the deepest irony, it leaves the reader with the impression that news outlets who more-or-less played it straight (National Review and Fox) were in fact ginning up “banning Beethoven” hysteria.

“It was claimed,” Ross writes, “that Ewell was trying to ban Beethoven.” Who made that claim? Surely the articles in National Review, and Fox News, mentioned, as they are, in the first half of the sentence. But this is false. Neither account discussed Beethoven in any way. Here we see the institutional corruption—that magnificent semicolon, separating Fox News and National Review from the passively voiced “it was claimed.” One cannot help but imagine the delicate intervention of a New Yorker fact checker, ensuring that the sentence, although gravely misleading, was not technically a lie.

One further point of interest. While Ewell’s original article criticizes the “white racial frame” in music theory, he twice approvingly quotes one particular white critic. That critic is Alex Ross. Evidently neither Ross nor his editors thought this fact warranted inclusion, or one might say, disclosure.

Narrative Construction and the Fix We’re In

All of this represents an attempt to construct a narrative. America now hosts, as all know, an ongoing debate about bias in academia, cancel culture, and what it means to expunge racism from our institutions. This is our current culture war, and these are its battlegrounds. Is academia really biased, or are conservatives just playing the referees when their ideas fail in honest competition? Does cancel culture even exist, or is it merely the whining of the powerful, unused to criticism? Can we fight racism in our institutions through inclusion and race-neutral principles, or do we need to restructure and reframe, and perhaps even endorse, explicit, racial discrimination in the service of ultimate, anti-racist equity?

Ewell’s original address, the JSS response, and the subsequent controversy touch on all these issues. Indeed, for cancel culture it is an obvious exemplar: many voices are calling for the JSS to be dissolved and for Jackson to be disciplined. And while the university’s official investigation may focus on procedural topics—the degree of peer review and the propriety of accepting an anonymous submission—we know them to be pretexts. Had the symposium been uniformly supportive of Ewell, none of these issues would have been raised.

But it remains only one case, an anecdote. It does not provide dispositive evidence for or against any position in our culture wars. Ross did not need to mislead. He could have given his readers a fuller version of the truth and made the same argument in the end. But instead, he chose to conceal relevant facts, to play upon the biases of his readers, and to make his opponents look not just wrong, but ridiculous. Remember, they—that nebulous “they” of the outgroup—are hysterical about cancel culture; they think anti-racists want to ban Beethoven!

Dropping for a moment the impersonal tone, let me explain how I came to this story. I don’t know Ewell, or Jackson, or Walls, or Ross. I am not a music theorist and I had never heard of Heinrich Schenker, nor could I begin to describe his approach to tonal analysis. Rather, by sheer happenstance I had come across a short precis of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies fiasco. And I subscribe to the New Yorker. So when I read Ross’ article, I found myself thinking “this can’t be right” and started Googling. In under ten minutes, I saw what was up.

I consider myself firmly on the “classical liberal” side of the culture wars, but after reading everything, I find it very hard to care about the reputation of Heinrich Schenker, or how he is introduced in conservatories around the globe. What I do care about is the trustworthiness of mainstream institutions. In short, I want to be able to read the New Yorker without being lied to. But if you’re willing to bend the truth about something as trivial as a controversy in music theory, on what topic can you be trusted? That, unfortunately, is The Fix We’re In. The most credentialed and celebrated will intentionally mislead in the service of their preferred narrative. There is a line, attributed to Churchill: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” It seems the culture war may be a real war, after all.


Erich Korngold is the pseudonym of a close reader of The New Yorker.

Image: HeungSoon, Public Domain

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