As the academic semester winds down I’m choosing to feel good about the work I get to do as a scholar in critical music studies. In these last few years my teaching and mentorship opportunities have become increasingly important to me as modes of praxis; being part of a community that’s responding to the received world of institutional music study, considering its implication in larger structures of power, and considering how we’d like to collectively move forward. I’m sharing here the text of a letter I’d sent to a class at the end of last semester called “Decolonizing Music Study” as its sentiment feels just as relevant today regarding musicological discourse more generally. The course had just scratched the surface of so many huge issues, but it was a start. I’m sharing it here as a reminder to myself and anyone else to keep going. Nothing changes if nothing changes and I’m grateful for this work and these communities.
Hi, all –
It’s been so fruitful engaging with y’all about these ideas this semester. We certainly covered a lot of material and, I hope, have more of a grasp on the situation in the US in general and institutional music study in particular.
We learned that much of what we can understand about identity is culturally constructed and socially affirmed rather than essential and biological – particularly with regard to race, gender, and class. Regarding institutional music study, we learned that the criteria for Western Art Music are related to those other criteria of identity and are based upon similarly culturally- and historically-contingent assumptions about reality. Some of these have been implicated in processes of imperialism and, ultimately, white supremacy. We reflected that the structure of many mainstream university music departments favor those musics that, if engaged uncritically, help to reproduce the problematic parts of that sociocultural logic. We learned that the contemporary neoliberal university is engaged in the colonial logic of extraction and accumulation. Perhaps most importantly, we learned that all these things can be changed.
Each of us has work to do as we continue to learn and grow our critical consciousness, but also to consider how we might get uncomfortable and do the work, engaging with material and ideological conditions at the local and (inter)national level. This can be in school/musical training, our jobs, our relationship to local government, justice in altering (abolishing) carceral systems, capital (re)distribution, systems of material production and consumption, owner/worker relations, and our relationships to historically constructed systems of domination in terms of colonizer/indigenous, racially dominant/dominated, socioeconomically (dis)advantaged, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality, etc.
I’m grateful for all of your ideas and for the challenge of trying to stitch these critical spaces together – and for your patience with my sometimes rambling asides. My own understanding of this complex situation is certainly better for having had these conversations with y’all and I hope you feel the same. In any case, I am left challenged but inspired by Paperson’s encouragement to work to manifest the “Third University”; to imagine and work for justice, to decolonize those structures and logics to which we have access and influence.
I’m proud of you all for having done the work this semester. It’s a start – let’s keep going.