Classical Music

Music in the Background • VAN Magazine

Music in the Background • VAN Magazine

Classical music-theory academia is a small field with limited professional opportunities, to say the least. So it might seem surprising that the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, an annual music theory journal dedicated to the work of Austrian-Jewish musicologist Heinrich Schenker based at the University of North Texas, has been searching for a new editor (or team of editors) since July 30, 2021, and has yet to receive a single application, according to recently available court transcripts.

Denizens of Musicology Twitter and its parallel universe, the SlippedDisc comments section, may have an idea as to why: For those blessedly anchored in the real world, here is a brief summary of a case that began as a passionate-yet-niche dispute between scholars and has reverberated—or been manufactured—into a broader referendum on academic and free speech in the United States.

In November 2019, music theorist Philip Ewell gave a plenary at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, titled “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.” In his talk, Ewell argued that Schenker’s hierarchical understanding of the harmonic progressions of large-scale pieces of classical music was rooted in his well-documented racism; that American scholars have systematically overlooked that racism; and that American universities would serve their students better by reducing (but not eliminating) the study of Schenker’s theories and using the remaining time to study the music theories of non-Western cultures.

Most of the 12th issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (JSS), published in July 2020, was devoted to Ewell’s talk—rebuttals of the premise that Schenker was a racist or, for those respondents who conceded this point, to arguing against the idea that Schenker’s racism informed his musical theories. As Olivia Giovetti and I noted at the time, the 12th issue of the JSS was criticized for “the quality of the responses,” which included borderline personal attacks on Ewell and an essay published anonymously. Much of the criticism was directed at Timothy Jackson, a Distinguished Research Professor of Music Theory at the University of North Texas (UNT) who was, formally, a member of the JSS editorial board and, informally, the journal’s apparent main driving force.

UNT students wrote an open letter to the university accusing the JSS and Jackson of racism, and faculty quickly expressed their support for the students. UNT convened an ad-hoc review panel to investigate how Volume 12 was planned and produced, which found that Jackson had failed to fulfill the guidelines for academic publishing recommended by the Committee on Publication Ethics. On January 14, 2021, Jackson filed a lawsuit against UNT, alleging that it infringed on his First Amendment right to free speech. 

More mainstream outlets than the JSS quickly got word of the case. In July 2020, the right-wing National Review wrote that Jackson is “now at the center of a controversy that goes to the heart of whether we are truly a free society.” In Current Affairs, Jeff Williams argued that “there are important lessons the left can learn from this saga,” including that “we must recognize that buzzwords like free speech and cancel culture are often used as red herrings by those who are simply not interested in serious discussions that pose a challenge to the supremacy of whiteness in institutions and cultural practices.”  

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That case is currently winding its way—slowly, as cases do, especially in the not-quite-post-COVID-period—through the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Division of Texas. A transcript of a hearing from the case held in October 2021 was entered into the public record in May 2022. There were two main procedural issues at stake in this hearing. First, was Jackson actually fired from his position on the editorial board of the JSS, or have the journal’s publishing activities simply been put on hold? Lawyers have wrangled over the interpretation of expressions such as “on ice” or “on pause,” and over Jackson’s formal versus informal roles at the journal. Second, how can the court remedy the damages, assuming they are proven? Can Jackson be reinstated to an editorship he never really held—but also didn’t not hold, because his initiative was essential to the functioning of the publication? At the hearing, Judge Amos L. Mazzant said, “The question is how do I apply the law to [these two questions].”

That is the narrow remit of Jackson’s lawsuit. This is true despite the claims made by Jackson’s lawyer, Michael Thad Allen, who said in court that the music theorist “had worked his whole life and had a position of importance… [Now he] could be deprived of that position in a cancellation attack,” and the heated rhetoric of the conservative media sphere. (In January 2022, Judge Mazzant declined UNT’s request to dismiss Jackson’s case, implying it may even go to trial.) 

In all this, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies has been forgotten, its activities on hold until a new editor is found. UNT says that while it would like the publication’s activities to continue, it simply has received no applications. For his part, Jackson says that the university has structured the job announcement to discourage applications, with the intended outcome of shuttering the journal completely. 

Either way, it’s not hard to understand why scholars would be reluctant to apply for the JSS editorship. A music theorist with a healthy skepticism of Schenker’s personality and methods would reasonably worry about being portrayed as an outsider intent on destroying the journal from within. A passionate Schenkerian would have grounds to suspect being dismissed as a racist just for taking the post. A nuanced and scholarly debate both about Schenker’s racism and methods would be best for the field of music theory, leading as it could to a genuine reexamination of music education in the United States. That seems highly unlikely now. “We understand, Your Honor, that outside this specialized world, no one has ever heard of Schenkerian analysis,” Allen told the judge in the October hearing. It’s too late for that now. ¶

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