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Obscure musicology journal sparks battles over race and free speech
A photo of Heinrich and Jeanette Schenker at the home of Timothy Jackson, a music theory professor at the University of North Texas, in Flower Mound, Texas, Jan. 6, 2021. Johnson’s address about racism and music theory was met with a vituperative, personal response by a small journal. It faced calls to cease publishing. N. Johnson/The New York Times.

by Michael Powell

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A periodical devoted to the study of a long-dead European music theorist is an unlikely suspect to spark an explosive battle over race and free speech.

But the tiny Journal of Schenkerian Studies, with a paid circulation of about 30 copies an issue per year, has ignited a fiery reckoning over race and the limits of academic free speech, along with whiffs of a generational struggle. The battle threatens to consume the career of Timothy Jackson, a 62-year-old music theory professor at the University of North Texas, and led to calls to dissolve the journal.

It also prompted Jackson to file an unusual lawsuit charging the university with violating his First Amendment rights — while accusing his critics of defamation.

This tale began in the autumn of 2019 when Philip Ewell, a Black music theory professor at Hunter College in New York City, addressed the Society for Music Theory in Columbus, Ohio. He described music theory as dominated by white males and beset by racism. He held up the theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in Austria in 1935, as an exemplar of that flawed world, a “virulent racist” who wrote of “primitive” and “inferior” races — views, he argued, that suffused his theories of music.

“I’ve only scratched the surface in showing out how Schenker’s racism permeates his music theories,” Ewell said, accusing generations of Schenker scholars of trying to “whitewash” the theorist in an act of “colorblind racism.”

The society’s members — its professoriate is 94% white — responded with a standing ovation. Many younger faculty members and graduate students embraced his call to dismantle “white mythologies” and study non-European music forms. The tone was of repentance.

“We humbly acknowledge that we have much work to do to dismantle the whiteness and systemic racism that deeply shape our discipline,” the society’s executive board later stated.

At the University of North Texas, however, Jackson, a white musicologist, watched a video of that speech and felt a swell of anger. His fellow scholars stood accused, some by name, of constructing a white “witness protection program” and shrugging off Schenker’s racism. That struck him as unfair and inaccurate, as some had explored Schenker’s oft-hateful views on race and ethnicity.

A tenured music theory professor, Jackson was the grandson of Jewish émigrés and had lost many relatives in the Holocaust. He had a singular passion: He searched out lost works by Jewish composers hounded and killed by the Nazis.

And he devoted himself to the study of Schenker, a towering Jewish intellect credited with stripping music to its essence in search of an internal language. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies, published under the aegis of the University of North Texas, was read by a small but intense coterie of scholars.

He and other North Texas professors decided to explore Ewell’s claims about connections between Schenker’s racial views and music theories.

They called for essays and published every submission. Five essays stoutly defended Ewell; most of the remaining 10 essays took strong issue. One was anonymous. Another was plainly querulous. (“Ewell of course would reply that I am white and by extension a purveyor of white music theory, while he is Black,” wrote David Beach, a retired dean of music at the University of Toronto. “I can’t argue with that.”).

Jackson’s essay was barbed. Schenker, he wrote, was no privileged white man. Rather he was a Jew in prewar Germany, the definition of the persecuted other. The Nazis destroyed much of his work and his wife perished in a concentration camp.

Jackson then took an incendiary turn. He wrote that Ewell had scapegoated Schenker within “the much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the United States” and that his “denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism.” He wrote that such phenomena “currently manifest themselves in myriad ways, including the pattern of violence against Jews, the obnoxious lyrics of some hip-hop songs, etc.”

Noting the paucity of Black musicians in classical music, Jackson wrote that “few grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued.” He proposed increased funding for music education and a commitment to demolishing “institutionalized racist barriers.”

And he took pointed shots at Ewell.

“I understand full well,” Jackson wrote, “that Ewell only attacks Schenker as a pretext to his main argument: That liberalism is a racist conspiracy to deny rights to ‘people of color.’”

His remarks lit a rhetorical match. The journal appeared in late July. Within days the executive board of the Society for Music Theory stated that several essays contained “anti-Black statements and personal ad hominem attacks” and said that its failure to invite Ewell to respond was designed to “replicate a culture of whiteness.”

Soon after, 900 professors and graduate students signed a letter denouncing the journal’s editors for ignoring peer review. The essays, they stated, constituted “anti-Black racism.”

Graduate students at the University of North Texas issued an unsigned manifesto calling for the journal to be dissolved and for the “potential removal” of faculty members who used it “to promote racism.”

University of North Texas officials in December released an investigation that accused Jackson of failing to hew to best practices and of having too much power over the journal’s graduate student editor. He was barred from the magazine, and money for the Schenker Center was suspended.

Jennifer Evans-Crowley, the university’s provost, did not rule out that disciplinary steps might be taken against Jackson. “I can’t speak to that at this time,” she told The New York Times.

Jackson stands shunned by fellow faculty. Two graduate students who support him told me their peers feared that working with him could damage their careers.

“Everything has become exceedingly polarized and the Twitter mob is like a quasi-fascist police state,” Jackson said in an interview. “Any imputation of racism is anathema and therefore I must be exorcised.”

This controversy raises intertwined questions. What is the role of universities in policing intellectual debate? Academic duels can be metaphorically bloody affairs. Marxists slash and parry with monetarists; postmodernists trade punches with modernists. Tenure and tradition traditionally shield sharp-tongued academics from censure.

For a university to intrude struck others as alarming. Samantha Harris, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a free speech advocacy group, urged the university to drop its investigation. She did not argue Jackson’s every word was temperate.

“This is an academic disagreement and it should be hashed out in journals of music theory,” Harris said. “The academic debate centers on censorship and putting orthodoxy over education, and that is chilling.”

That said, race is an electric wire in American society and a traditional defense of untrammeled speech on campus competes with a newer view that speech itself can constitute violence. Professors who denounced the journal stressed that they opposed censorship but noted pointedly that cultural attitudes are shifting.

“I’m educated in the tradition that says the best response to bad speech is more speech,” said Edward Klorman of McGill University. “But sometimes the traditional idea of free speech comes into conflict with safety and inclusivity.

There is too a question with which intellectuals have long wrestled. What to make of intellectuals who voice monstrous thoughts? The renowned philosopher Martin Heidegger was a Nazi Party member and Paul de Man, a deconstructionist literary theorist, wrote for pro-Nazi publications. Japanese writer Yukio Mishima eroticized fascism and tried to inspire a coup.

Schenker, who was born in Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was an ardent cultural Germanophile and given to dyspeptic diatribes. He spoke of the “filthy” French; English, and Italians as “inferior races”; and Slavs as “half animals.” Africans had a “cannibal spirit.”

Did his theoretical brilliance counter the weight of disreputable rages?

Ewell argued that Schenker’s racism and theories are inseparable. “At a minimum,” he wrote in a paper, “we must present Schenker’s work to our students in full view of his racist beliefs.”

The dispute has played out beyond the United States. Forty-six scholars and musicians in Europe and the Middle East wrote a defense of Jackson and sounded a puzzled note. Ewell, they wrote, delivered a provocative polemic with accusations aimed at living scholars and Jackson simply answered in kind.

Neither professor is inclined to back down. A cellist and scholar of Russian classical music, Ewell, 54, describes himself as an activist for racial, gender and social justice and a critic of whiteness in music theory.

Shortly after the Journal of Schenkerian Studies appeared in July, Ewell — who eight years ago published in that journal — canceled a lecture at the University of North Texas. He said he had not read the essays that criticized him.

“I won’t read them because I won’t participate in my dehumanization,” he told The Denton Record-Chronicle in Texas. “They were incensed by my Blackness challenging their whiteness.”

Ewell, who also is on the faculty of the City University of New York Graduate Center, declined an interview with The Times. He is part of a generation of scholars who are undertaking critical-race examinations of their fields. In “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” the paper he presented in Columbus, he writes that he is for all intents “a practitioner of white music theory” and that “rigorous conversations about race and whiteness” are required to “make fundamental anti-racist changes in our structures and institutions.”

For music programs to require mastery of German, he has said, “is racist obviously.” He has criticized the requirement that music Ph.D. students study German or a limited number of “white” languages, noting that at Yale University he needed a dispensation to study Russian. He wrote that the “anti-racist policy solution” would be “to require languages with one new caveat: any language — including sign language and computer languages, for instance — is acceptable with the exception of Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French or German, which will only be allowed by petition as a dispensation.”

Last April he fired a broadside at Beethoven, writing that it would be academically irresponsible to call him more than an “above average” composer. Beethoven, he wrote, “has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years.”

As for Schenker, Ewell argued that his racism informed his music theories: “As with the inequality of races, Schenker believed in the inequality of tones.”

That view is contested. Professor Eric Wen arrived in the United States from Hong Kong six decades ago and amid slurs and loneliness discovered in classical music what he describes as a colorblind solace. Schenker held a key to mysteries.

“Schenker penetrated to the heart of what makes music enduring and inspiring,” said Wen, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “He was no angel and so what? His ideology is problematic but his insights are massive.”

How this ends is not clear. The university report portrayed Jackson as hijacking the journal, ignoring a graduate student editor, making decisions on his own and tossing aside peer review.

A trove of internal emails, which were included as exhibits in the lawsuit, casts doubt on some of those claims. Far from being a captive project of Jackson, the emails show that members of the journal’s editorial staff were deeply involved in the planning of the issue, and that several colleagues on the faculty at North Texas, including one seen as an ally of Ewell, helped draft its call for papers.

When cries of racism arose, all but one of those colleagues denounced the journal. A graduate student editor publicly claimed to have participated because he “feared retaliation” from Jackson, who was his superior, and said he had essentially agreed with Ewell all along. The emails paint a contradictory picture, as he had described Ewell’s paper as “naive.”

Jackson hired a lawyer who specialized in such cases, Michael Allen, and the lawsuit he filed against his university charges retaliation against his free speech rights. More extraordinary, he sued fellow professors and a graduate student for defamation. That aspect of the lawsuit was a step too far for FIRE, the free speech group, which supported targeting the university but took the view that suing colleagues and students was a tit-for-tat exercise in squelching speech.

“We believe such lawsuits are generally unwise,” the group stated, “and can often chill or target core protected speech.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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