Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Turf wars in musical academe

Although my contacts to American musical academe are limited I have recently noticed some signs that the relationship between musicologists and composers in universities has become more rather than less tense and apprehensive. Tensions between the two parties in music departments are nothing new, and have sometimes even become the stuff of legend: in some houses of liberal arts the scholars felt there was no room for the compositional practitioners and in conservatories, the academics were made ill at ease among the practicals. In part the current problems are surely due to usual and inevitable conflicts over resources and positions, a conflict heightened no doubt by the turn of the 21st century (composers used to at least be able to secure themselves one line item course by teaching the history of music that musicologists had not yet claimed as historical; the invention of the music theorist as an independent professional specialist has further weakened the compositional hold on tenure tracks). But my impression is that the present conflict is especially heightened by composers who are deeply disappointed with musicologists and their current project fields -- musicologists don't produce soon-to-be-safely-dusty editions like they used to and they listen too favorably to popular musics thus reinforcing the academic isolation of new/serious/art/modern music -- and musicologists are likewise disappointed in composers for, well, insisting on sticking it out in the academy. In at least one very major university -- one which has for a century turned out an over-proportion of well-known American composers -- there are currently no senior professors of composition with permanent positions although the department, fully staffed with musicologists, theorists and ethnomusicologists, continues to offer advanced degrees in composition and has a remarkable success in placing their graduands. It may well be that the optimal situation, practically speaking, is either that of a place like Brunel University, where the focus is upfront on composing and performing new music, or of UCLA, where disputes led to the division into three separate departments in two different schools, and now, each blessed with its own budget line and working spaces, the three get along with one another just fine and the joy of disputes over style and substance are now more narrowly focused in the new departments. But still, and I now write with all the self-interest of a confirmed generalist, I have to hope against hope that there is, someplace, sufficient room in institutions for scholars and practioners, specialists and generalists, to get along and work productively together, and even to work with people outside of music buildings proper in a useful way. A utopia?


Elaine Fine said...

I have a lot of empathy for the musicologists working today. 20 years ago it was possible to know a relative lot about music, and 40 years ago it was possible to know just about everything about the general field of music. A specialty field for a musicologist was a fertile feeding ground.

Now, thanks to CD labels like Marco Polo, as well as the research done by people in the post-Grout and post-Lang generation, digitized journals, the internet, unusual instrument specialists, easy (if not instant) access to all kinds of printed musical material, musicologists who do not read Latin and specialize in Medieval Music (where there still is, I have heard, much to be translated and interpreted) have a rough time existing in the academic food chain where they are forced to set up shop if they want to be taken seriously or make any kind of living from their discipline.

In this age of reporting history as it happens, trying to evaluate new music is pretty tough for anyone, particularly for academic musicologists who might fear that what they have to say might be "on the record."

Stefan Kac said...

If I'm understanding you correctly, Daniel, you're saying that the musicologists take popular music more seriously than the composers? I'd have to say that it was quite the opposite where I went to school, or at least that was my impression. My musicology professor would not let me write on Thelonious Monk, while the graduate comp students once covered "Fuck Tha Police" as an encore to a composition recital.

If there's something that I as a composer resent about musicologists, it's that they seem to survive on everything that is extraneous to the actual music itself. As a composer, you have to have accomplished an awful lot for anyone (let alone a musicologist) to care about the mundane details of your daily life...but even so, we'd rather people just listened to our music, right?

We (meaning everyone, not just composers) really have to be our own musicologists in order for what that field has traditionally been about to have any relevance whatsoever to us individually. In that sense, the availability of information is everyone's cross to bear, and I feel no more sorry for the poor musicologists than I do for myself as someone who has read considerably less than they have to start with.