RMA – Music & Phil Study Group: A Conference Paper

Yet another opportunity for a public-access style conference video!

I was grateful to share this talk as part of a panel called “Music, ‘Art’ and the White Racial Frame: Aesthetics and Critical Race Theory,” organized by the Royal Music Association’s Music and Philosophy Study Group. My talk, entitled “Decolonizing Ontological and Epistemological Assumptions of Institutional Music Study” has been heavily influenced by the prep I’ve done for the social justice/decolonization seminar I’m presently teaching at CWRU. While entirely too brief to really get into several of the topics (~3000 words), my TLDR takeaway is that the critical knowledge generated in contemporary musicology is great, but too often blunted from fomenting social praxis toward equity by its being gate-kept in the neoliberal university. It’s clear that our modes of thinking condition what we believe to be possible, informing our actions. In our contemporary hyper-connected plurality, each of us bring different musics and modes of musicking to a stand in our local and globalized communities. By learning to think expansively about what music is and does, we create the conditions to be and act differently – potentially more justly. Either by refiguring power structures associated with specialized knowledge, or by working outside the traditional bounds of academia, I hope we can move “decolonization” in terms of music study from the sphere of the metaphorical into the sphere of praxis. Transcript of the paper is available HERE.

Abstract: As a concept, admonition, and mandate, decolonization is finally finding itself a topic of discussion in the halls of institutional music study. The boundaries and demands of whatever decolonization might mean, however, are unclear. In the marketplace of musical production and distribution, issues that beg a decolonizing intervention are relatively easier to spot; i.e. access and exposure, performance, and “consumption.” But, as manifest in institutional music study, effective responses to calls for decolonization may be trickier. It has been argued that the university is an artifact of colonial logic engaged in authorizing and reifying heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. Scandals like “Schenkergate” of summer 2020 and accusations of white supremacy in the Society for Ethnomusicology call this out and demand moves toward the decolonization of institutional music study. “Decolonizing” syllabi is important, as is the decentering of whiteness in terms of the privilege heretofore enjoyed by the canon of Euro-American art music and its attendant theoretical models. But I suggest these incremental moves do little to address the assumptions upon which the white racial frame of institutional music study was built and is reproduced. This paper asks what it might mean to decolonize music study by considering the framings that presuppose our “object” of study, specifically with regard to ontological and epistemological conceits. These include: the work concept, being vs. becoming, undecidability, the limits of notation to frame the communication of musical experience, etc. By interrogating previous assumptions, we are led to ask not only what music might be, but also what the university and music degrees are for; to interrogate the type of knowledge and value production in which we are engaged.

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