5 Questions to Philip Ewell (Author, Music Theory and the White Racial Frame)

Philip Ewell is an Associate Professor of Music Theory at Hunter College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate Center. In his plenary address at the 2019 Society for Music Theory’s Annual Meeting, Ewell declared “music theory is white,” unearthing an issue that music theory has long avoided. Applying Joe Feagin’s sociological concept of the white racial frame, Ewell rejects the dominant narrative that race (and sex) are unrelated to theoretical concerns in music. In his article “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” and a six-part series on his blog, “Confronting Racism and Sexism in American Music Theory,” Ewell applies knowledge gleaned from feminist and sociological research to his work, and offers bold thoughts on expanding the curriculum and challenging our own assumptions, biases, and “isms” to address these issues.

How have your colleagues responded to your work, and has anyone pledged to make changes to their own research and teaching because of it?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Over two years ago, when I began this work, I knew that I’d lose some friends and colleagues once it came out. I speculated that, for every friend/colleague lost, I’d gain two or even three more. I was wrong. For every friend lost there have been more like 20–30 friends gained. It’s not even close. Exactly seven persons have written to me with angry, sarcastic, and mean commentary about my work. None of them engage my scholarship, but just call me an “idiot,” “racist,” or “inept.” They are all white men. And, also significant I think, all pianists. They represent what Emory University’s African American Studies Professor Carol Anderson calls “white rage,” and I’m uninterested in engaging with it. Show me the white woman, POC man or, most important, the POC woman who takes issue with my race scholarship as it applies to music and I’ll listen. (To my knowledge, none have.) Otherwise, all systems go.

To your second question, yes, many people have written to me talking about the antiracist and antisexist changes they’ve pledged to make in their music programs. For example, Cornish College cited my work and pledged to have the music curriculum feature exclusively POC composers this coming year, and to have, from those POC composers, at least 75% women or gender nonconforming composers.

Balancing the number of textbook musical examples and theoretical writings by white men with those of women and BIPOC might seem like a logical approach to rectifying the current lack of diversity in the music theory classroom. Is this approach both a possible and positive one?

Possible, but not necessarily positive. If one takes a typical music theory textbook, with 98% of the musical examples written by white composers—which is almost all such textbooks—and drops that number to, say, 80% or even 70%, one reifies and solidifies whiteness. And then whiteness will dig in its heels to keep that 70%, or whatever percentage is arrived at. My suggestion for a new textbook would be a two-fold approach: begin the discussion of pitch, rhythm, meter, and scale with nonwhite approaches from, say, Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. Some of these approaches predate ancient Greece of course, and by introducing the basic concepts this way, one debunks the white-framed mythology that civilization, and whiteness, started with the Greeks.

Second, when introducing western music theory, which should obviously be part of any music theory course in the U.S., do so from the angle of composers who would not have identified as both white and male. There were obviously many such composers throughout western history, and many scholars are now working with them. And then, for example, halfway through the book, an example by Mozart! He, too, was a significant composer whose music should appear in such a book. But instead of 30 Mozart examples, let’s have one, maybe two. Approaching music theory from this nonwhite/nonmale angle, but not to the exclusion of white men, will enrich music theory for everyone.

In “New Music Theory” you say, “The next time I teach [post-tonal theory] I will take my cue from [feminist scholar Sarah] Ahmed and try to not study any music theorists who are both white and male.” Is this sort of dramatic structural realignment in content something that you would recommend widely if called on to redesign music theory sequences for undergraduate and graduate music programs?

No. This would be something of a thought experiment for me and my students. To be sure, I think they would greatly benefit from such an experiment, which I would outline beforehand, and I don’t think they would be disadvantaged in the long run—one can always go back and study white-male theoretical methodologies if one has a sound basis in technique. But not all instructors could make this work since it will require serious research on music theories that are not part of the music theory’s white patriarchy. I think I could pull this off and I think students would be extremely receptive to it in 2020. This “deframing,” “counterframing,” and “reframing” (terms from sociologist Joe Feagin here) of music theory’s white-male frame will greatly enrich post-tonal music studies, which are currently exclusionist with respect to race and gender.

Ewell-SMT-Plenary from Philip Ewell on Vimeo.

You promote actively countering racist discrimination with what Ibram X. Kendi calls “antiracist discrimination”, an example of which would be for a music department to permit any language except for the “standard” five to satisfy the PhD-level foreign language requirement. Why isn’t it enough to simply permit students to choose any language(s) that best suit their needs?

Because the “standard” five are already deeply baked into the existing structures of such departments. In fact, they are so entrenched, it’s easy to call the requirement to know German, French, and Italian (no longer ancient Greek and Latin—white frameworks can’t really insist on these any longer) an institution. Changing the policy to simply require “two foreign languages” is white-framing sleight of hand, since such frames know that German, French, and Italian—in that descending order of importance by the way—will still be privileged.

So, for instance, who will proctor the exam (existing faculty, who know these languages), what passages will be translated (existing passages), and who will work out the scheduling (intra-departmental people who already know how the exams work). To give such an exam in, say, Tagalog, will require extra work, so students will still be steered toward the traditional, which is to say white, languages, and the white frame knows this. The white frame wants to get credit for “antiracist action,” but this is, in fact, “assimilationist action” (terms from Kendi). By scrubbing whiteness, in this case “German, French, and Italian,” from the policy, white people in power believe they are being egalitarian. They are not. They acknowledge neither the whiteness of these three languages, nor the ways in which this particular “racist policy” (again, a term from Kendi) has policed and enforced whiteness in American music theory since its inception in the U.S. in the 1960s. And, as Kendi says, assimilationist action is racist action. The only acceptable action is antiracist, as I’ve outlined in my second blog post with respect to language requirements.

Confessing that, “…to be a POC in music theory is exhausting,” you point out that many of the diversity committees and similar popular initiatives (that often create additional work with little professional reward for the POC who serve on them!) may actually perpetuate the status quo. What are some clear, decisive steps that can be taken right now to effect real change and make the study, creation, and performance of Classical music a more equitable, diverse, and genuinely welcoming space for all?

I now realize that this question, which I get asked often, is the wrong question. By rushing to seek solutions, white frameworks wish to circumvent the hard work and accountability that antiracism actually requires. Here are the questions I would ask instead. How can we take antiracist action if we’ve not yet acknowledged our own racist actions? What is antiracism without a firm understanding of racism? And how can we, in the future, take the “decisive steps” that you seek above without an acknowledgment and reckoning of our racist, anti-black, white supremacist past, both individually and collectively? With this in mind, I’d suggest to my music theory colleagues that we, collectively, draft a resolution, perhaps in the Society for Music Theory, that states a few key things unequivocally. This is the first “decisive step” that must be taken—not just in music theory but in classical music as well—if we truly want to, as you say above, “effect real change and make the study, creation, and performance of Classical music a more equitable, diverse, and genuinely welcoming space for all.” Here are four suggested statements:

  1. Acknowledge that American music theory is historically rooted in white supremacy, the racist idea that whites are superior to nonwhites.
  2. Acknowledge that these white supremacist roots have resulted in racist policies that have benefitted whites and whiteness while disadvantaging nonwhites and nonwhiteness.
  3. Acknowledge that these racist policies have resulted in injustices suffered by nonwhites at all stages of their careers.
  4. Apologize to nonwhites, without equivocation, for these injustices.

These simple statements of fact, and the apology, presuppose the steps you allude to above. In other words, this is the step that those in power must take before we can see positive change with respect to racism and racial matters. And inasmuch as those in power in music theory and classical music are virtually always white, it is white persons that must first take this difficult step, which will ultimately be not just rewarding, but emancipating.

Disclaimer: The author took a course in Advanced Music Theory with Dr. Ewell during her time as a student at Hunter College.