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Friday, August 14, 2009

Why musicology makes me ill

I often wonder what it is that musicologists do. They appear to have monopolized many college and university music departments, and never seem to run out of rhetoric regarding a form of expression that is essentially non-verbal. Their banter is harmless most of the time, and easy to ignore if you avoid their academic circles, professional journals, and musicological conventions. For the most part, the profession of musicology is rather benign and usually confined to tiny enclaves hidden within academia that have little or no relation to the reality of music making. Generally, I pay little or no attention to it. They don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them.

But when the profession of musicology lets a pit-bull out of the kennel to roam in public areas, I get very perturbed. One of musicology’s shining lights – let’s call him Mr. T – is a wild animal with rabies on the loose. He frequently goes on the attack in mainstream newspapers (such as the NY Times) to condemn styles of music that his paranoid mind sees as evil. Mr. T, a sharp-tongued academic, is highly skilled in the art of verbal destruction. He wields his pen like a knife, even if his underline point of view is baseless, distorted, and malformed. When discussing styles of music he does not understand, his message is usually one of intense rage and blind hatred. From my perspective, Mr. T is the Ann Coulter of musicology.

I call him Mr. T, because quite frankly I fear him. He is a dangerous person, and I don’t want myself or my family to be tracked down by this wack-job. Frankly, based on his past actions, I wouldn’t put anything past him.

One of the ugliest street fights I’ve ever seen in this business was instigated by Mr. T. In March of 1996 he wrote an article for the NY Times where, from out of the blue, he torpedoed an innocent victim just for the fun of it. Masquerading as a review of some music CDs, it was in fact a cold-blooded assignation. I am not exaggerating my case.His despicable article provoked an enormous public outcry and resulted in a deluge of letters to the editor from an outraged public. Not only was a talented composer’s career being destroyed, but a large number of other composers felt as if our entire profession was being maligned. One can only imagine what it must have felt like to be the innocent composer that Mr. T selected to publicly execute in his NY Times CD review. Mr. T, who thinks like a stalker, selects his victims when they least expect it and are most vulnerable.

The victim of his vicious assault in 1996 was an ordinary guy, a composer working in his basement studio like a craftsman slaving hard every day to write his personalized and well-made musical compositions. He was 65 years old at the time, in poor health, and like all composers, just trying to get his music heard. Albany Records had just released two CDs of his work. One CD was of his solo piano music, and the other a reissue of a 1974 Nonesuch LP recording that had gone out of print. I happened to purchase the CDs. I think it's wonderful music, but that is besides the point.

One would think that a CD release would be reason for anyone to celebrate. In a market deluged with new CDs, even getting a mention in an influential paper such as the NY Time would help to generate a few sales. Nobody gets rich from writing, publishing, and releasing CDs of contemporary music. It’s a niche business. The more music that is out there, the more people are exposed to it, the more options everyone has. If someone dislikes it, that’s OK. No one is forcing them to purchase the CD. It’s a free country.

When the attack in the NY Times came, it was lethal. Mr. T’s choice of words were toxic, and he made no attempt to hide the fact that his motivation was to destroy the composer’s credibility and career. He went directly for the jugular. Journalistically, I’m not sure this article, which is full of innuendo and character assignation, would have made it past editors in the UK where writers can not hide behind first amendment rights for legal protection. Anywhere else but here in the US, Mr. T would have been sued.

The impact of this ridiculous NY Times article was formative. Mr. T had made a name for himself, but the composer he knifed repeatedly in the back alley was devastated. I would go as far to say that the psychological impact experienced by the composer being dragged through the mud by this wack-job shortened his life. Nobody unfortunate enough to live through vile public criticism such as this can emerge undamaged. Having the misfortune to receive such unscrupulous criticism can only be devastating to one’s soul, and one’s physical health.

Decent people know evil when they see it. A noted German musicologist (and a colleague of the victimized composer) wrote to Mr. T in protest about his damaging public attack. He said it was reminiscent of the Nazi broadsides at Schoenberg that he remembered from his youth. Mr. T’s reply, “I do choose my targets with some discretion.”

All of this would be past history, water under the bridge from an ugly incident that occurred over 15 years ago. The composer who was attacked has since died, and Mr. T has advanced his career as a much published and much feared musicologist and academic. He is chair of the music department at a leading American university.

Regrettably, the old the wounds have been reopened once again. Earlier this year Mr. T published a volume of his essays (“The Danger of Music”), which include the infamous 1993 NY Times article that caused so much turmoil and emotional distress. Not only does this revisit a crime scene that most of us have tried to put out of our minds and forget, but to add insult to injury Mr. T adds a lengthy postscript to his article. Like Dr. Schön in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, Mr. T coldly digs his knife into the victim once again, going deeper this time. He turns the knife from side to side - even though the victim is no longer alive to defend himself. It’s the epitome of cruelty.

That’s why musicology makes me ill.