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TT 257: New Book by Philip Ewell
"On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming For Everyone"
The title On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming For Everyone implies that Philip Ewell has a manifesto and perhaps a plan of action.
Not so. The book has a bit of historical data and many accusations; the bulk of it is accounts of personal battles:
a battle to get tenure
a battle to get the paper “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” published
a minor battle about the status of Rimsky-Korsakov (“would this Slav been considered white by his peers” etc.)
a more serious battle to prove some written pitches by Prokofiev are antisemitic
and — most famously — a battle with The Journal of Schenkerian Studies that went viral and is still being litigated.
Perhaps if the book’s title had been Ewell’s Wars, the work would have had more of a chance to relax into its true character. The stories Ewell has about being the only black person for miles around in the sweatshops of music theory are important, and the potential of an interesting — even amusing — tell-all memoir occasionally peeks through the pages.
As it stands, the second part of the given title, “Making Music More Welcoming For Everyone,” is simply false. Ewell is on the warpath. Watch your step.
Music theory is frequently bunk, although there are a few easy first steps that seem to be true for most.
Duke Ellington said, “I discovered that F-sharp is not G-flat.”
Ellington immediately continued, “That was the end of my lessons.”
After musicians do whatever they do, academics try to figure it out. Needlessly complicating matters is one favored practice, ignoring troublesome exceptions to the rules is another. Sometimes the academics create minor fiefdoms along the way, or at least manage turn a quick buck. (“My grand theory of harmony is now for sale, only $49.99 in the campus bookstore!”)
In exceptionally rare cases, someone who is not a practitioner or composer takes a seat at the conversation. A music theorist with staying power?! Strange but occasionally true.
Heinrich Schenker is one of those exotic birds. I had a semester of Schenker studies in 1992, and while I enjoyed the class and can still explain the basic function of an Urlinie, I felt no burning desire to explore the topic much further. However, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt both took Schenker very seriously, and that’s good enough for me. If my own path were to hew closely to the Sessions/Babbitt lineage, I would make damn sure I got enough Schenker into my personal mix, for I’d hate to be hanging with Roger or Uncle Milton at the bar and suddenly be caught flat-footed when they brought up ol’ Heinrich.
(Schenker discussed theory with Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg is famous for his 12-tone system, which was influential on both Sessions and Babbitt. Once we get to this kind of complicated atonality, pre-planned mathematical systems actually do become part of the musical design. While traditional Schenkerian analysis has nothing to do with atonal music, both Sessions and Babbitt found inspiring solutions for their own passionate composition embedded in the intellectual content of Schenker.)
Of course, in the larger scheme of things, Schenker is not too relevant today. For that matter, Sessions and Babbitt are now fading gracefully into the twilight. It’s only a small crew of harmless obsessives who care…
…Although Philip Ewell has certainly done his part to focus recent attention on this nerdy corner of human endeavor. Heinrich Schenker ends up being the major player in On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming For Everyone. The two central chapters about Schenker and The Journal of Schenkerian Studies take up over 110 pages.
A basic primer on the Ewell vs. Schenker battle was written up in the New York Times by Michael Powell. The article seems reasonably clear and even-handed, especially given that Powell was writing an overview for the general reader.
Philip Ewell would disagree. As he explains in On Music Theory, Ewell refused to speak to Powell in advance of the article, casting Powell in the role of “bothsidesing” the issue. Ewell says firmly, “My humanity is not up for debate.”
Instead of answering a call from a journalist doing their due diligence, Ewell bided his time, and eventually published his line-by-line rebuttal of Powell’s article here in On Music Theory two years later.
Sayre's law seems relevant: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”
Humans are bigoted because they are tribal, ignorant, and self-absorbed. Everyone used to be bigoted, and probably everyone still is (although most have learned not to be bigoted on social media).
Heinrich Schenker was born in 1868 and moved up and down in Austrian society. Surely everyone within shouting distance of Schenker was racist. What’s notable is how Schenker wrote down his racism in the way that Wagner wrote down his antisemitism. I’ll be bigoted for a moment as well: Perhaps it was part of their precise and grandiose Germanic character that encouraged these madmen to commit their sins to paper.
(In terms of criticizing musicians from the long-ago past, Carlo Gesualdo is perhaps a bit different. Gesualdo wasn’t a conventional bigot. Gesualdo slaughtered his wife and walked free because he was a nobleman. It was terrible, but I can’t say what happened in 1590 affects my judgment today. There’s no blood on the score. It is only pitches on the page: a call to vocal creativity: a fresh experience each and every time. The human race is lucky to have had the great Carlo Gesualdo.)
I have no special sympathy for the members of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. They had every opportunity to be more nimble and good-humored when confronted with Ewell. Look around: where are the black people at this table?
At the same time, it is impossible for me to think that any members of the Journal are truly nefarious. Indeed, passing the time while considering the work of a long-dead music theorist is about as mild as it gets.
The fact that there is an ongoing lawsuit about all this would be comical if it weren’t so damn sad. Anyone who even knows the name Heinrich Schenker should essentially be on the same side.
Ewell is absolutely correct that most “music theory” has a “white racial frame.” Yet Ewell himself is utterly and bewilderingly committed to seeing music in European terms.
In this country we have a powerful mechanism that simultaneously generates intellectual art and visible social progress while engendering great joy along the way. It’s called American Music. The engine of this music is from Africa. It was brought here on the slave ships during the Middle Passage.
The neglect of this mechanism’s intellectual qualities by the academic establishment — including Ewell! — is confounding until one realizes that the people who truly command American Music rarely have much to do with the academy, probably because few of them want to be around a sheriff.
(There’s nothing more Eurocentric than demanding that someone practice with a metronome; the whole of African classical tradition is invalidated at a stroke.)
Masters of American music know that their art is too esoteric to be written in a book; they know that trying to explain some basics about the mechanism to the committee is casting pearls before swine. A whole lot of college professors need to prove that they are worthy of receiving a few secrets before any of this gets much better.
The road for respect is long. Sometimes it feels like we take two steps backward after one step forward. The last decade has seen the elevation of minor romantic symphonist Florence Price to something like sainthood in the classical music academy. The academy thinks it is paying off some dues, but those dues are still waiting to be paid. Celebrating Florence Price offers little currency in the actual fight against racism down in the subconscious where it really matters.
I strongly doubt that any of Price’s recent advocates can sing one Louis Armstrong solo.
In his book, Ewell discusses Price, of course, but the few pages on jazz are an afterthought. Indeed, nowhere in On Music Theory does Ewell mention African-influenced rhythm as a theoretical organizing principle.
Below is a serious suggestion to Ewell and the rest of academy; it was written last year for a symposium on jazz in The Threepenny Review. (My editor there is the wonderful Wendy Lesser.)
Americans spend much time, money, and effort every year producing excellence in the old European manner: violinists who can play in symphonies, pianists who know all of Beethoven and Brahms, singers for opera, and assorted conductors and composers, all intertwined with the ecosystem of august names such as Houston Grand Opera, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Symphony.
In the current culture wars, some academics and politicians are pushing back against this pattern, wondering if all this is colonialist and an expression of white supremacy.
I have the solution! Everyone involved should learn some basic jazz drums.
To state the obvious, jazz is incredibly sophisticated music, just as rich as European classical music. Indeed, there’s an argument that we should call jazz “America’s Classical Music,” for jazz is a New World blend of European classical music (harmony and song form) and African classical music (rhythm, phrasing, sonority, improvisation).
But jazz is also simple, just as European classical music is simple. There are some basics everyone should know. Nearly everyone involved in classical music at a high professional level can do basic keyboard mechanics, meaning sight-read Bach chorales at the piano and accompany singers from that old Schirmer edition of Italian Art Songs and Arias. It’s not rocket science.
Likewise, almost all professional jazz musicians can play a basic mid-tempo swing beat on a drum set. The right hand plays “Spang, spang-a lang, spang-a lang” on the ride cymbal. The right foot plays four soft beats on the bass drum. The left foot snaps the high-hat on beats two and four. The left hand plays fragments of famous clave patterns.
Great drummers take all those elements and make it high art, but the basics are there for anybody. This essential beat powers all the famous jazz records from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties; it is also heard in countless movie scores, TV commercials, and much other flotsam and jetsam from American culture.
Which is harder to play: a Bach chorale at the piano or a chorus of Count Basie blues at the drums? Who cares? There is absolutely no reason serious American musicians shouldn’t be able to do both.
For the violinists and the conductors, swinging at the drums will help them play Mozart and Mahler. Guaranteed. Indeed, new horizons of expression will be right there for the taking, for there can be a kind of stiffness in classical musicians, a way the beat can be uptight. Jazz drums teaches the triplet, the luminous three within the two that is such a marvelous feature of the formal music descended from Mother Africa. And this also might quell some of the lingering racism in elite musical institutions, where some of the practitioners still think jazz and other black music is “easy.” If it’s easy, let’s hear the first violinist and the conductor play a bit of drums with a decent jazz pianist and bassist.
Knowing basic jazz drums is a quick fix for a variety of issues. But apart from renovating the room, an entry-level command of the drum set would unlock new forms of compositional creativity. What fresh combinations of sounds might appear from the best and the brightest if our elite ensembles understood rhythm as well as they understood notation?
[end of Threepenny Review piece]
Ewell writes, “Roland Wiggins, who influenced Quincy Jones, Lateef, Thelonious Monk, and Billy Taylor, was an official teacher of Joseph Schillinger’s methods, but generated his own theoretical framework out of what he called the kinesthetic, syntactic, and semantic elements of music.”
Roland Wiggins is a new name to me. I need a fact-check for the assertion that Wiggins “influenced Thelonious Monk,” especially since Wiggins was born in 1932 — Monk sounds like Monk on the first Monk records from the 1940s — but the intriguing Wiggins Wikipedia entry includes links to doctoral papers by Billy Taylor, Yusef Lateef, and Bill Barron.
The Billy Taylor dissertation is obviously the forerunner of Taylor’s important book, Jazz Piano: History and Development.
I don’t have my old copy of Taylor’s book at hand, but I believe this dissertation actually includes much more information than the final commercial product.
Further comments about Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt are in my long piano overview, “Write It All Down.”
Students get my own “Theory of Harmony” as part of a packet of handouts every semester. A noted jazz pianist complained to me about the pdf, saying, “There’s no theory here!”
I snarled back, “You’ll have to settle for music!”