In this week’s episode, Phil Ewell, Christopher Jenkins, Lydia Bangura, and Susan McClary discuss how the Theorizing African American Music conference came to fruition in the first episode of a series on this monumental conference.
This episode was produced by Megan Lyons.
SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. Undine Smith Moore's "Before I'd Be A Slave" is performed by Geoffrey Burleson. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season02/.
[SMT-Pod opening theme music playing]
Welcome to SMT-Pod! The premiere audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this week’s episode, Phil Ewell, Christopher Jenkins, Lydia Bangura, and Susan McClary discuss how the Theorizing African American Music conference came to fruition in the first episode of a series on this monumental conference.Music:
Alright, so to start, I would love to hear about both of your experiences in music and in music theory specifically. You know, it's always so interesting how music scholars come to realize that they want to study music theory, musicology, or ethnomusicology, or to do music research, since normally we're not like eight years old and wanting to be a music theorist or something like that. So, how about, let's start with Chris.
Sure, well so, I will give the caveat that I am not a music theorist officially. I'm a musicologist in so far that distinction matters at all. And, I was actually recruited into it. Which, doesn't make a lot of sense, I think in a field that has historically has maybe not been as appealing or perceptive of people of color. I was actually in my BMA interview at CIM, I was working as a dean, an associate dean at Oberlin, and I thought, "you know, I should really get my doctorate, and I should probably do it in viola performance at CIM." And, I was auditioning and had my interview where Susan McClary was there. I'm embarrassed to say, I did not really know particularly well who Susan McClary was at the time.Christopher Jenkins:
I'm old enough that when I was in college, we didn't read Susan McClary, so you know, I was meeting her at I thought "Okay. How are you, good to meet you, what do you do?" I play viola, I work at Oberlin, and she said, "why did you decide to play the viola?" and I said "well, I've published a few things on black music, on the aesthetic of black classical music in particular." And she said "Well, would you have an interest in applying to the PhD program in musicology, and I said " Well, maybe. I've never thought about that in my life! But that's possible." Then we had more conversations and I got more interested in the idea and I realized I could to it concurrently with my BMA so, I'm still pursuing both degrees and I have a degree program worked out wherein both institutions have signed off on my doing it, so I can double count my credits, which is very lucky. And that is how I became a musicologist.
Yeah, I started playing cello when I was nine, and my dad was very into classical music. He came from that kind of early to mid 20th century, African American, I don't know, intelligence, let's say. I sometimes think of my dad as a cross between W. E. B DuBois and Booker T. Washington, and you know, DuBois was very into classical music and into Wagner, and he went to Germany to study and you know, a lot of black people thought that liking classical music in the early to mid 20th century might help them assimilate. To a small extent, they were correct, but only to a small extent unfortunately. And my dad was certainly one of those people, so he always filled our house with classical music. Which was fine, I still quite like classical music, obviously, and I certainly like playing the cello, but that's why I started playing the cello.Philip Ewell:
And ultimately, I ended up going to college, not really to be a musician. I was think about engineering or maybe physics, my dad was a mathematician and I took my cello, and I kept playing, and I started practicing and I realized you can get better if you practice, something I never really learned until I was about nineteen. And so, I did declare music as a major and I did a few things, but maybe the most interesting thing I did was end up going to Russia to study cello, in the late 1990's, actually the first time I was there was the summer of 91'. And I applied to graduate school from St. Petersburg Russia, as a matter of fact, and I applied to DMA programs so I have that same, I have that in common with Chris. I did get into some really great programs, in fact, I got into your program, Lydia, Michigan, and they gave me a really good package I should say, but I had also applied to PhD programs.Philip Ewell:
And I was accepted into Yale as a musicologist, not as a music theorist actually. So, I have that in common with Chris too! And I don't think, Chris, you ever knew that. But, that's my path and [unintelligible] was recruiting me from Russia to go to Yale. And I think he probably forgives me for essentially moving over to music theory. I took some classes with Allen Fort, and they were really fun, he was a really fun professor to study with, had a great wry sense of humor. And I liked that and theory just kind of fit me better. I had a masters from Queen's College where I was able to study with Carl Schachter and he also had that wonderful, I should say, he has, wry sense of humor. And so, that's how I got into music theory at Yale, I ended up finishing in 2001 and then had three different appointments, I came to Hunter in 2009 and I've been here ever since.
Yeah, wow, so interesting, thank you for sharing. Great, so, my second question is after you had this encounter with Susan McClary, where she you know, challenged you both, charged you both with "Something needs to happen around theorizing African American music, and I don't know what that is, but y'all can begin to convene about that." I'm really interested in the conference idea as far as being that being the medium that you picked to express these ideas and to explore African American music, specifically within the music theoretical context. So, what was it, as far as the initial vision, what was it about a conference that appealed to you both versus something like "Oh, we're going to start a new publication or we're going to get together a textbook, or collect some resource, or publish something around it, or even do something like this, like a podcast, a series of continued conversations about Black music. What was it about the concept of a conference that appealed to you both?
It was a question of first what was happening where there were gaps in what our available resources were, so we talked about a number of different possibilities, this would have been back in April or May in 2021, right, Phil? I believe when we first scheduled this conversation so, it was a while ago, but, so, there is, I believe, a textbook that Phil's been apart of that was going to address some of these issues that will come out. So that's already been done, and to a certain extent, academic publishing is a little bit, dare I say, limited in it's reach and impact on the broader scope of [unintelligible] life right, and how pedagogy is evolving. So, not that they can't be impactful but it's not necessarily a rapid impact or a deep impact depending on what you do, right?Jenkins:
So, I think we had the opportunity to do something that was a kin to a conference partly because we had strong institutional support from Oberlin, from CIM, from places could actually physically host us. And Cleveland made a lot of sense as a location because of the low cost, relatively for housing, because we had resources right, and we could use maybe some CIM dorms, which they very generously granted us, things like that, that we needed. Case, whose actually interested in hosting and actually making spaces available, which is the biggest issue at a conference, right, paying for space. You got a space for free, then you can do something. So, a lot of it was matching up what we felt would have an impact, what could happen based on available resources and what needed to happen based on what else is going on at the time.
I would add that, and this is a little difficult to say but, maybe I would approach by saying in the summer of 2020, the summer of open letters, there were Princeton faculty who wrote a letter to the President Provost of Princeton, and that letter was ultimately signed by about 300 people, and it started by saying, I think this is a verbatim quote, "America is foundationally anti-black." And then it explains, it limits how Black people can move, where they can live, where they can get loans, and no body should really question that, it just is, if you think about the 3/5ths compromise, which counted the three of us, by the way, as 60% of a person, right, as 3/5ths of a person, to the fugitive slave clause of our founding documents, right, 1787. And along those lines, America is very much in part, anti-black, foundationally so. Well, American music theory is also, in part foundationally anti-black. That might be hard for people to hear but it doesn't make it any less true. Music theory is, in part, anti-black. It just is. Because our country is, in part, anti-black. Again, this is a statement of fact, this is not really an open question.Ewell:
So, with that in mind, Lydia, with you question about the conference, and you had mentioned in the set-up, within the context of music theory like maybe attach ourselves to an SMT panel or a pre conference or something like that. But that doesn't have the same impact, right. So this conference, we want to -- the language we kept coming back to was "Foreground Black voices in talking about Black music," which we decided to call African American music. There's a slight difference there, but not much. And that's what we did, and we're trying to put it on the same ground, making it on an even playing field, because, frankly, it never has been on an even playing field. Music theory, Black music theoretical ideas, music theoretical ideas, have been segregated out of mainstream music theory, which is to say, white music theory, forever, right? They've never not been segregated out along racial lines.Ewell:
Why wouldn't they have been segregated out along racial lines when the entire country was doing exactly that? Sometimes, in white spaces, especially in white academic spaces, it's kind of confounding to me how people think that somehow their field floated above or under the radar of the hate and anger that white supremacy and patriarchy wrought on our country. It's confounding to me! How could anybody think that academic music could somehow not be affected by the structures and institutions of our country. That's just silly. That's not academic, it's sub scholarly to even say so! So, we can look at it from a different perspective.Ewell:
Rather than having, what I have called in my writings, a white perspective on Black music, we can take our own agency, take ownership of the topics, and present them to the entire country, in very much a multi cultural, multi racial environment, there may have been more white participants I'd say maybe 40% or 50% white participants at our conference, couldn't make me happier, personally, because that's what I want. I actually want all races, in other words, I don't want to do what music theory has done, which is segregate the races. I actually want to bring them together, in an integrationist fashion, and then talk about African American musical topics which are so very important to our country and to our field, and invite everyone into those conversations.
Yeah, I just wanted to add, that question of ownership is really important to us. And that phrasing that Phil mentioned, foregrounding of Black voices, ownership and Black music scholars was really, really critical. And we actually convened rather, a meeting of Black music scholars online in preparation for the conference in June 2021 just to announce that we're thinking about doing this and to ask for volunteers, right, for folks to help us out and join the movement as it were. And that was a really amazing and special moment because so many people who I don't think have been in the same virtual spaces before together. And, I'll add this, you know at Oberlin, African Heritage house, there are definitely moments were all Black spaces are creates, spaces that are only Black.Jenkins:
And I do feel that there is value and importance to that, and that's what we created online. Just for an hour for a conversation, but it was a really amazing and special moment, and for me, it really had so much value, and I hope we can do that again. Only thing I wanted to say was the way that we just answered that question, I thought really demonstrated how the conference worked and why it worked because you asked how this started and I went for the logistics and resources, and Phil, very beautifully viewed the philosophy and values that actually informed what we were doing and yes. I apologize, I am an administrator, very boring. I've been the dean for eight years. But, that was actually how a lot of the planning unfolded. Phil was thinking about programming, and personalities, and focus, and the framing, and I was like "Alright so, were going to get this ballroom over here, we'll use this room over there."
Yeah, but without that, Chris, none of that would have happened, let's just be honest so! Philosophy's great, but.
Right, I mean, both of those things are necessary, right? To make it really have substance and value, and for it to really happen. So, but I think, that is really why, a big part of the reason why it worked because we were able to join forces in that particular way.
Yes, the dynamic duo, it really works. And I am so glad that they could come together. And I remember getting an invite, I believe it was Phil directly that emailed me back in June for that meeting and I was so geeked! I was like "what is happening? How did he? ...Wait! They've heard of me, what's going on? I'm invited to this Black music research.. Okay!" It was really, really, exciting to just be in a room with some people that were doing such interesting and valuable work. So, I agree, we should definitely have another meeting like that because, I think spaces like that are really precious and continue to connect us and our work as a field within, under the umbrella of music scholarship.
If I could just follow up on that meeting too because it's something that's kind of, you know, slipped my mind, that yeah, that was the first meeting. You said it was June of 2021, Chris? And it was, I think, two Zoom galleries on my screen, and I personally, have never been in a space like that, of course a virtual space, but with Black music scholars, I think at that point it was 100% Black music scholars just talking about African American music. It was at once exhilarating, refreshing, emancipating, and incredible humbling, rewarding, I'm at a loss for words really, to see all these scholars just talk about Black music and to exert this agency that has quite actively been denied, black people in any white space, such as music theory.Music:
Great! So, my next question is about how you anticipated the rest of the field to react to a meeting like this because as y'all mentioned earlier, that it was a deliberate to not have a Theorizing African American Music space be within the context of the annual meeting for the Society of Music Theory. And so, I'm wondering, you know, if you could speak a bit more about that choice and why you wanted it to be at a separate time, a separate space, and also how anticipated the rest of the field reacting, you know, as far as you thought there was going to be a lot of support, if there was going to be pushback, if you were going to count out financial support from different institutions.Bangura:
My mind immediately goes to the Center for Black Music Research and the Black Music Research Journal, that unfortunately had it's last issue in 2016 or 2017 and so, there's also that very practical issue of funding and of support. Like, it's one thing to have the intentions of a meeting like this and of sharing these ideas, and it's a different thing practically, you know, how is that going to play out. So, if y'all could speak to your experience with that.
So, I personally don't try to think too much about how official music theory is going to react to my own work because I would probably go crazy if I did, right? We were very happy and humbled that SMT, I applied for a subvention and we got some money, upwards of almost a thousand dollars which was very much appreciated, that was from SMT. But personally, and since I was one of the driving forces of this conference, I guess I, I mean it's a little bit of a personal thing, so I'm hesitant to say it, but it's funny and I don't think my dear friend Ed Klormen would mind me saying it, but once, some months ago, he said "Well you're kind of a gad fly to music theory these days."Ewell:
Sorry Ed, but you know, look, he's my dear friend and I'm just going to go ahead and say that he said that and I think it's just so perfect because I am a gad fly a bit to music theory! And I've cause a lot of consternation and in certain quarters, obviously, quite a bit of animosity. And I'm called controversial a little bit, but the reason I'm controversial is not really so much about what I'm saying it's about that I'm Black in a white space using the word white clearly and that I have tenure and I'm well, not really that afraid of music theory's white male frame, Put all those things together and there's controversy, right? So, I'll take it away from me, I don't want to talk about myself anymore, but when you're asking about how SMT was going to react or how official music theory was going to react, there has to be a little bit of that personal story, I think. I think that, right now, to have a conference called Theorizing African American Music, taking away some of the agency from whiteness within the field of music theory is always a little bit unnerving to music theory.Ewell:
We can unearth a lot of inconvenient facts and a lot of uncomfortable truths about what's happened, we can look at some of the grim acts that have happened in music theory. For example, take the issue of popular music studies in music theory, right? Everybody does some, it seems, these days. I personally don't have a problem with anybody doing pop music studies in music theory, I am very much a first amendment kind of person, you know, free speech. If you do it, you know, that's great, knock yourself out. I do have a problem, however, with pop music studies in music theory if the white, male frame of music theory somehow thinks that it is doing something positive for Blackness, that it's helping, celebrating, honoring, Blackness if it's having a panel on Prince. "Oh, we are doing Blackness right, we are helping the issue.Ewell:
We're even engaging in anti-racist activities as certain scholars have said, have suggested." I really have to speak out against these mistaken beliefs in the strongest terms possible. If people want to look at Black music, fine, but nobody music theory's white racial frame should think that they are helping or honoring or celebrating Blackness. No, I say no. If you pull Black music into the vortex of music theory's white racial frame and you start doing linear progressions, P-L-R transformations, you know, any of the things, you're looking at modulations, your old truck driver modulations and all of these new terminologies we come up with, you're not helping Blackness! You're just not helping Blackness, let's just say it very clearly. If anything, you're hurting Blackness. So, it's not easy to say these things, obviously, I'm not mentioning names, but there are well over a hundred such names, maybe hundreds, because people do pop music studies.Ewell:
And that's great, I mean, generally speaking, it's really neat that we're looking at popular music, but if you look at the history of popular music in the United States, you are, to a very large extent, looking at the history Black American Music, which is what we're talking about here, right? Nobody should deny that fact, when you think about the impact that African American music genres have had on popular music in our country. And when you strip the Blackness from the discussion, when you strip the humanity from Blackness, you are, in fact, doing immeasurable harm. So, if the listener wants to think about positive steps, I could offer a couple ideas. Well, the first is to stop thinking you're helping Blackness, or honoring, or celebrating Blackness. Just get rid of that language because you're not. That's number one. Number two, think about engaging with BIPOC scholarship and realize that it's realize it's probably not going to happen in Music Theory Spectrum or Music Theory Online.Ewell:
Because those have been unavailable to BIPOC Scholars because of the anti-BIPOC-ness of our field. So you're going to look in other journals, you're going to look in other places for ideas that could easily be called music theory but we don't call them that because of the racial segregationism of our field. So look for that, engage with that, and then engage with the people behind that scholarship. They are very often BIPOC people themselves. You can think of Jeff Chang who wrote "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" the best ethnography or Hip-Hop, that was maybe 10 or 15 years ago probably. Joe Schloss wrote a great ethnography, "Making Beats." Loren Kajikawa, right, he's BIPOC, and then all of the African American scholars, way too numerous to list here, who've worked with these composers in African American music, sometimes classical music obviously. And engage with those people, and then, if I could just add maybe one final point, you know, go to a conference that's not music theory, but music.Ewell:
Go to a podcast interview, invite BIPOC, invite Black people back to SMT, form a panel on Aretha Franklin and say to yourself "I'm going to be the only white person on this panel, come hell or high water!" Right? And "I'm not going to do the panel if there's another white person on it." This is, I don't want to sound "anti-white," I think people who know me well know that I'm not, my mother, who was much cooler than my father, by the way, was white! So, let's start with that! What I'm trying to say, when we have our panels of five white men, cisgender probably straight, talking about, I don't know, Prince or Johnny Lee Hooker, it just doesn't sit well, it doesn't. And we need to understand why it doesn't sit well.Ewell:
We, music theorists, and now I'm speaking to the entire field, need to look in that mirror, have hard conversations with ourselves, realize the racial segregationsim on which our field is built, realize the white supremacy on which it is built and realize that we all share, myself included, a responsibility to confront that past, unearth the unpleasantness, and then to have those hard conversations. That's what race scholarship is, that's what anti-racism is, and we should not be running from it at all simply because it's a little uncomfortable. So many people in our country right now are taking these childish views that we can't, that we have to deny the past. I'm hopeful it'll end here, and there's a bit of a silver lining, I'm hopeful we can actually have those hard conversations, because I think there are a lot of good faith people out there, of all races, within Music Theory having those conversations, and it's been really great to see that happen over these last several years.
Yeah, if I were to say anything about that, I would just add that, first of all I'd like to give a shout out to Ed Klorman, we're [unintelligible] back at Aspen in 2000 or so. What's up, Ed, if you're listening to this. Second, just to add on to what Phil was saying on pop music studies, yeah, I'm writing a dissertation now on Hip Hop, and I'm really struck by the vibe, the segregation of scholarship in terms what's published in Music Theory Spectrum, Music Theory Online.Jenkins:
It's focused exclusively almost, on musical structures and scholarship, such as in the Journal of Hip Hop studies that focus on message, social implications, spiritual ramifications, because the musical analysis often seems to really be divorced from the message and the implications socially of what's actually in Hip Hop. It does feel a bit like we have these structures that we can apply, to apply them to Hip Hop and see what happens, but that's not exactly what Hip Hop is about, right, so if you separate it out from how the actual music is conveying a certain mood that has social and political implications, you're kind of losing a big part of the whole purpose of that music, right? And I think that's a small part of what happens in pop music studies, generally.
As this series recaps the defining moments of this conference through the lens of organizers and participants, let us take a moment to revisit Phil Ewell’s opening remarks.
Welcome to Theorizing African American Music (TAAM). My name is Phil Ewell, co-convener of this conference, with Chris Jenkins. It’s so great to be here after over a year of planning. I have about 12 minutes of prepared remarks, in which I’ll give a bit of background on our conference. But I’ll start by saying a huge general thank you to everyone who’s made today possible, folks at Case Western, CIM, Oberlin, U of Louisville, SMT, and other places. And of course, to our Steering, Program, and Local Arrangement Committees, a huge thanks for all the work you did to make this conference possible.Ewell:
I’ll let my co-organizer Chris Jenkins do specific thank you’s in his remarks since, like any good leader, I’m farming out the hard work of acknowledgements to Chris just in case we forget to thank someone. (In law they call this “plausible deniability.”) But I would like to thank Chris here. I met Chris in January 2020 in Manhattan for lunch when he was there on a visit. He had reached out to me after my November 2019 plenary talk at the Society for Music Theory to discuss some of the racialized aspects of academic music, and it was at this time I learned that Chris was getting not only a DMA in viola performance at CIM, but also a PhD in musicology at Case. Oh yeah, he’s also a dean at Oberlin—quite the renaissance man. Chris, it’s been great putting this project together with you, I always look forward to our zoom calls, and I couldn’t think of a better partner in planning TAAM. Thanks for all your hard work and efforts!
Like so many good things in the academic study of music over the past few decades, TAAM began with Susan McClary. Susan had given a virtual lecture at a prominent school of music, and her lecture featured a piece of classical music by an African American composer. During the Q&A Susan noticed how some of the music theorists were eyeing this piece as fodder for analysis: “I think I heard a P-L-R transformation in there” or “the Essential Expositional Closure was quite unexpected!” or “did you hear the prominent melodic descent from scale degree 5 in the coda?...wow!”Ewell:
Well, Susan saw this for what it was: another attempt to assimilate African American music to the music theory mainstream, thus legitimizing the music in question so that it could be mined for resources in the future, all under the guise of “honoring” or “celebrating” African American music, when in fact such activities usually do nothing for blackness at all. So what did Susan do? She turned to two trusted African American sidekicks, me and Chris, Chris as her official advisee at Case Western, and I as her unofficial advisee in life. We three met on zoom on April 19, 2021, and the wheels were set in motion for our conference.
Though I won’t outline the rich history of conferences highlighting African America music here, TAAM is hardly the first such conference. It's paramount to acknowledge all those scholars, African American and others, who have worked with this music in the past. Going back at least to the nineteenth century and James Monroe Trotter’s 1878 book on African American composers Music and Some Highly Musical People, African Americans have been deeply connected to our country’s musical landscape. And, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all, American musical genres that could be reasonably be called black were segregated out of the academic study of music, just like black persons and other nonwhites were segregated out of American society, quite legally and constitutionally I might add, until the Supreme Court ruled that such segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
On a personal note, I must admit to being something of a newbie to theorizing and analyzing African American music. This is not to say that this music has been distant to me, not at all. I’ve always loved all forms of AA music and, in the late 1980s into the 1990s there was about a five-year period that the only music I listened to, outside of the classical music I was performing on cello or analyzing in class, was jazz. I still have hundreds upon hundreds of jazz albums and CDs from that time, and I saw live jazz then as well, and artists such as Baker, Blakey, Byrd, Carter, Davis, Farmer, Fitzgerald, Getz, Gillespie, Hancock, Heath, Henderson, Jamal, Miller, Modern Jazz Quartet, Peterson, Roach, Rollins, and Shorter, among many others. I saw my favorite pianist, McCoy Tyner, many times all across the country, and the greatest regret of my life was passing up the opportunity to see my favorite vocalist of all time, Sarah Vaughan, in the late 1980s in San Francisco before she died in 1990.Ewell:
The only reason I didn’t go to that concert was that I had just seen the indie band REM the weekend before and I couldn’t afford the tickets. (In retrospect, I should have jacked a convenient store for the ticket money.) And even though I may be a newbie, I must say that the warmth and openness that I’ve been met with from scholars who know so much more about African American music than I do has been truly humbling—we should all invite others into our musical conversations with such warmth and openness, so thank you.
Though I’ve always loved African American music, I had to live a double life as a doctoral student in music theory at Yale University in the 1990s, and I’m certain that this is a double life that resonates deeply with many of you in the room today. Knowing that you could have never presented an academic work on a black composer you love to the academic music power structures. Knowing that you had to compartmentalize your love of black music and find a separate love with what was, let’s be clear, a white music we were all told was just plain better than the black music we loved, a mythical white music that we were told had nothing to do with race, just greatness and exceptionalism.Ewell:
TAAM is a conference dedicated to removing those barriers that were built between different racial musics—regrettably, over the years I myself had been a bricklayer in the fortification of those barriers, even if I had laid those bricks unwittingly. TAAM is also dedicated to fighting the musical racial segregationism on which our schools of music were founded in the 19th and 20th centuries, and our conference is dedicated to promoting musical equity and justice in everything that we do.
There have been so few visible black music theory professors in the history of academic music in our country. Of course, black music theorists often existed outside of official music academies in our country, and I willingly acknowledge them here, but until recently, one encountered black music theory professors in the academy quite rarely. I remember the cognitive dissonance I felt the first time I met another black music theorist, Horace Maxile, at a theory conference in about 2005. I didn’t know whether I should run up to Horace and hug him, or run up to Horace and kill him. Fortunately, for everyone involved, I chose the former, and Horace and I have been good friends ever since.Ewell:
I visited Horace at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago when he was still working there in about 2008, and that was when I first came across the rich legacy of scholarship in African American music, and the work of such icons as Eileen Southern and Samuel Floyd. Horace told me of the first African American PhDs in music theory, Horace Boyer, Calvin Grimes, and Lucius Wyatt in the early 1970s, which is about when the first such degrees were awarded in the U.S. to begin with. I should also cite here my dear colleague Jewel Thompson, still teaching with me at Hunter College, who was likely the first African American women to receive the PhD in music theory, and whose 1982 Eastman dissertation on Samuel Coleridge Taylor was likely the first music theory dissertation focusing exclusively on a black composer. TAAM honors and continues this legacy today.
I often say that, in order to do true antiracist work in American music theory, the type of work that our conference highlights, you actually only need two things: you’re gonna need tenure, and you’re gonna need a really good high-speed internet connection. (Which BTW where I live in Brooklyn, is harder to get than tenure) But if you don’t have those two things, doing antiracist work in music and music theory is much harder. Existing power structures can lash out quite aggressively if challenged directly—believe me, I have a bit of experience in this regard—and one must be prepared to defend oneself from what can be quite silly and disingenuous arguments from those power structures.Ewell:
You can do this by doing two things, first, find your allies—real allies and not those who might throw up a BLM lawn sign now and then but who do not actually want to see the structures of what we do in academic music change. By the way, I call such faux allies AINOs, Allies In Name Only, who are actually far greater in number than you might think. Second, once you’ve found your true allies, build coalitions and demand change. There’s safety in numbers folks, and I’ve seen great things happen when allies band together, form coalitions, and demand reasonable changes from existing power structures.
A final point here about ally-ship: if you’ve read any of my recent writings you know that I call out whiteness and maleness as structures, which they have historically been in our country, but I really must separate white-male persons from those structures. Some of the very best allies I’ve ever had in my career have been, in fact, white men and, as I’ve delved deeper and deeper into race scholarship, I’ve been honored and humbled at the countless white men who have contacted me to have deep discussions about American music’s racial past and how we can move forward together in a positive fashion.Ewell:
And, on a final personal note, as a mixed-race black guy myself, I can say with certainty that my white Norwegian mother was a far better antiracist than my black African American father, and it was, in fact, my white mom who taught me the true meaning of antiracism long before that word entered my vocabulary. So, in closing, enjoy our conference, mingle, eat, drink, reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Thanks again to everyone who made today possible, and thank you all so very much for being here.
This conference would not have been possible without the influence of scholars from all walks of life. Susan McClary rejoins Phil, Chris, and Lydia to discuss her perspectives on teaching black music, and her eventual influence on the conference.
I got into including black music in my syllabi In 1986, when I was asked to teach the course on 20th century music for the university, at the University of Minnesota, and in fact, I did not know blues, jazz, anything. I had been a beautiful, classical music person, sticking my fingers in my ears whenever popular music went by, and you know, keep in mind that I am a creature of the 60's, you know, the great moment and I simply did not pay attention.McClary:
But when I was asked to teach this, I thought I can't possibly teach the history of 20th century music without acknowledging that as soon as sound recording happened, the principal music's heard not just in the United States, but around the globe, have been black musics. Blues, jazz, soul, hip hop. And so I made sure that half of my syllabus when I got to the 20th century was made up of black artists. And I believe very firmly in that there had been time times when NASM has threatened to take away the accreditation of the universities I'm at because I'm doing that. But I just do not see another way of teaching the music of the 20th century music is not what composers continue to do on the concert stage. Music is what people listen to, it is what affects our lives, our bodies, our sensibilities, everything. And that is black music in the 20th century.
I'd like to underscore just how rare that was in 1986 and how unique Susan is in that respect. I mean, it's a very small number of people, certainly white people who would have thought to do that. In the 80s, we were very much still mired in this notion of a racial hierarchy in the academic study of music, in the United States. Nobody should deny that, that's a statement of fact. And to somehow suggest that music written, conceived of, and performed by African Americans could somehow be part of a curriculum that also had, I don't know, 20th century, maybe you had John Cage or, you know, classical music traditions in there, or maybe you had, I don't know, Elvis Presley or other white artists who were, you know, imitating blackness for the most part. But that type of, I don't know that type of offering was simply, you know, it cut against the racial order of things.Ewell:
And in the 1980's whereby the United States of America as a country had begun to come out of this civil rights era of the 60's, and Susan had just said that she was a child of the 60's, and desegregate honestly into the 70's, and we all know that that project is still ongoing. But in, in music it was very much that everybody was just kind of living under a rock, right? You wouldn't dream of putting out Little Richard or Chuck Berry as an artist that could be even mentioned in the same breath as, I don't know, Morton Feldman or somebody else, you know, who was also writing music at the same time, It just, it just would kind of baffled the mind to the forces, the people who had power in the 80's and pretty much the entire country, so I just want to underscore how incredible that was. Of course, I'm not surprised because it's Susan, but but still. And the pushback that she must have gotten for for for doing that.
Yes, I was at the same time bringing feminist theory into musicology, but I hasten to say that I revised my dissertation with respect to race much sooner than I did with respect to gender because I mean, it just seems to me insane not to understand that black music is the soundtrack of the 20th century period period period. And when I did teach courses on music and women, I found that it only became really a natural thing to do when I got to the 20th century because, you know, you could say "okay, there's Hildegard and now three centuries later, here is another woman," you know, it's just so depressing when you get to the 20th century, it's a piece of cake because you have Ma Rainey, you have Bessie Smith, you have blah blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, and these are women, everyone knows who have influenced everybody's lives. It is very easy to argue for their problems.McClary:
So, you know, it's very interesting that although I'm mostly known for feminist theory, it was much more obvious to me that there had to be racial inclusion at that time. What brought me to egging Phil and Chris into putting on this path breaking conference is that I was invited by Michigan to come and speak to the music theory faculty and I was at the time scrambling like everyone was to figure out what to do in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. And in part because of my contact with Chris, Chris had already published an extensive annotated bibliography of Black composers. Now for all that I was trying to be inclusive, most of my Black musicians were, came from jazz and other vernacular musics. I did have William Grant still on my syllabus, but I realized that I really had to think about, of course there were black composers.McClary:
They were not all working within improvised traditions or big bands or what have you. And so I put Florence Price on my syllabus and and fell in love with her music, but also realized that I was not sure exactly how I should be speaking about her music in the classroom. I knew that I ought to, and I knew that we were all suddenly confronted with this, you know, across the whole discipline. And I was, and so my talk was really concerned with how to grapple, theoretically, with the music of a composer like Florence Price. And I realized that this was a huge, huge topic and that I was not really the person to do this. I mean Ray Linda Brown had paved the way, there have been many scholars who have been working, and I thought I should not be the person doing this. And so I immediately contacted Phil and Chris and said "this needs to be done. You guys do this." And they signed on.
Thanks for that, Susan!
So, you know, Susan, you're reaching out to Phil and to Chris and asking them to, kind of take on all of the questions that you were thinking about. Did you go to them and were you envisioning, like, "Y'all should put on a conference!" Or was it a general just like, "maybe you should begin thinking about these ideas and it could be something that you published, or it could be a textbook, or it could be a," like, or was it the conference format that you were really envisioning or did you just want to like plant the seed and see wherever they took it.
No, I wanted an event. I thought it was very important to have an event that was publicized so that this would mark a sort of turning point and I think that when I first contacted you, I said "you guys need to put on a conference." We were helped by our institutions, CIM, Oberlin, CASE, all chipped in. They were all very, very enthusiastic about having this occur. But I thought that the big public splash was very important.
Yeah that's that's my recollection too, and you know, it was Susan who reached out to to me and Chris after her talk at Michigan and you know, said we need to kind of get in front of this, essentially, just this idea of, I want to say, re introducing African American music because, you know, like, things happened in the 20th century, of course they did. But it was almost impossible to conceive of, like I was saying earlier when when Susan first thought of this in 1986 right, it was impossible to just like start thinking "I'm just gonna put Margaret Bonds' song cycle next to I don't know, maybe it's a class on song cycle, next to Franz Schubert's song cycle." That again would completely go against the racial order of the United States of America in the 1980's, sadly, it still kind of goes against the racial order today in 2022. But yeah, it's almost like Susan gave us a mandate
That's right, gun to your head, haha!
Yeah right, basically! And you know, I say tongue in cheek, like "Thanks Susan!" because it was a lot of work. But really it's tongue in cheek because it turned out to, and it was work. I mean, no question about that, but it was certainly worth it. And I think we can all, because we were all there can, you know, have a group nod that it was a really special event, something that will move forward and we have ideas for the future, I'm sure we'll talk about that at some point in this mini pod series that we're doing here. But yeah, it was, it was great.Ewell:
So we after that three person zoom, whenever that was, Chris and I started meeting and planning stuff and we kind of got out ahead of it and Susan was right when she said, it really can't be me leading the charge on this. It was something like that, I think you said Susan. And yeah, I totally get it. So the language we kept coming back to, and it's language I still use today is, foregrounding black and BIPOC voices in these discussions, yet at the same time inviting absolutely everyone into these discussions. That's generally the way I approach thinking about this massive body of music which, as Susan has pointed out in the 20th century, it's kind of, well it's American music, it's almost primarily right. If you actually look at like the music that people listen to, actually, yeah, African American music, and musical genres, and performers probably would be in the number one spot.
Absolutely. I want to mention that several of the people who came to the conference and who gave keynotes and who were involved with large panels were scholars who have been doing this for decades. I mean, this is not the first time anybody has had this idea. And unfortunately we have to keep doing it over, and over, and over again. So, you know, you have people who have been trying to light this fire over and over. This is not starting from square one. We're all building on that extraordinary work that has been done by Black scholars for decades and decades.
I think I would end this little point that Susan just brought up. I think it was James, a quote from James Baldwin, I'll paraphrase it here, but he said something like "ours is a history that must be retold over, and over, and over again." The point being that it's a history that people try to erase it, people successfully erase it, and then it gets told again, and then it gets told again, and it will keep being told. That story of African American music and musical genres, you know, long after we're all gone. And hopefully at some point we can just, you know, put all types of music side by side and not think about, you know, systems of power and think about, you know, hierarchies and actually believe that a certain kind of music is somehow better than another kind of music simply because a certain type of people produced it, which is of course, complete nonsense, at least it's complete nonsense to a humanist and an anti-racist.
And also, you know, I really appreciate the Susan's point about the insistence that this needs to be like, a public gathering and a public reckoning. You know, I think, when I think of Black community so much of it centers on, and hinges on, community and gatherings and right, there's so much power in actually physically being present, which obviously was made very difficult by the pandemic. And so, I think that aspect of it actually being in person, us getting together and listening to music together, having these conversations together was really powerful.
I wanted to underscore some of what Lydia was saying about community and how this conference felt in our foregrounding, as it were, of Black voices and lending ownership, Black ownership over this kind of conference. I think that when you do that in an academic conference, it's gonna feel a little different because the tenor of the of the culture is just gonna be different, right? Because it actually means something different to have African American ownership over some kind of cultural product like this and, as Lydia mentioned, community is so important in a way that is so very different, so distinct from a lot of the hierarchical thinking that goes on in academia and that's partly what makes it so quote unquote white. It's so deeply hierarchical, and structured, and disempowering in that way. So, you know, that's one reason that we will hope to continue these kind of events and a type of value that you really are invested in expanding upon, and reflecting upon, and continuing as we hold more of these events in the future.
I guess, I would just finish by saying thanks to Susan for kicking us in the butt and making us do this, and having the foresight to just kind of say, you know, reaching out to a couple of people you thought could do it and entrusting us to do it. And then, you know, giving us this impetus because it really did turn out to be something very special, something that we will repeat. You know, we'll talk about future stuff at some point, but, you know, we were thinking of things, although we're taking a break, we're not doing it this very next summer.
Thanks for listening to today’s episode. We’d like to thank everyone at SMT-Pod, and our friends and colleagues Susan McClary, Theresa Reed (who did the peer review for today’s episode), and my colleague at Hunter College, Geoff Burleson, who played the beginning bumper music. Which was an excerpt from Undine Smith Moore’s “Before I’d Be A Slave.” Join us for the next few episodes of this Theorizing African American Music pod series at SMT-Pod, where we will feature excerpts from the concert of our first night, also I have an interview with the keynote speaker for the second night, Dwight Andrews, and also an interview with some participants. And, finally, we’ll end with some thoughts on the final keynote panel. Thanks for listening and have a great day!
[Spoken over SMT-Pod closing music]
Visit our website smt-pod.org for supplemental materials related to this episode and to learn how to submit an episode proposal. Join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Thanks for listening!