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?