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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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We seem to fail doing the very same thing in music

Dear Yossi,

Thank you very much for your comment on my post Call for papers “What there is and what there is not to read about music in Hebrew”. I found it very interesting.

Yossi wrote: ‘if you mean that this methodological shift has left little imprint on studies published in Hebrew, then perhaps you are right. But this might owe more to the paucity of publications in Hebrew in our domain (as you yourself point out), than with a colossal unawareness of “what’s going on out there” in terms of scholarship.’

During an evening on the occasion of the retirement of Prof. Judith Cohen, a certain experienced professor used his speech to simultaneously praise Cohen as a scholar who creates score editions (among other things), and attack Joseph Kerman’s famous criticism that musicology should move away from positivistic research (such as creating seemingly objective Urtext editions – when in fact the are often very subjective) towards musical criticism. The silence in the room, after the speech ended, seemed to me less in respect of Cohen, which all the people present there admire, than part of ignorance towards the essence and the strength of what actually was said there.

It is well known today that the Urtext concept is a fiction and that one cannot avoid taking a position and chose between options how to edit a musical score. Pretending that this process is objective is part of a naïve (in the good case) or un-honest game (in the worst case) where people pretend to be scientists in the name of reaching an often untenable objective truth. Kerman’s call for a musicology which is critical is still important today, both in Israel and elsewhere. By the way, Kerman too acknowledges the importance of much positivistic work. However, he suggests that musicologists should have different aims. This is why the issue of research questions (that I raised in my last post) is so important.

Another occasion that made me think that many Israeli musicologists are not updated with recent research in the world is a lecture given by Prof. Roger Kamien in a conference on performance. It was surprising to see the gap between Kamien’s accessible and interesting popular book Music: An Apreciation and his Schenkerian lecture on performance. Kamien presented complicated Schenkerian graphs that very few people where able to follow. However, this was less troubling than the basic premise behind his whole lecture. He seemed to argue that one should do such an analysis in order to perform the music. So you could see his complicated graphs, and then hear his wonderful piano playing, and you asked yourself: is it really necessary to do such analysis in order to play Beethoven? Wallace Berry, Eugene Narmore and others would argue that ‘yes’. John Rink, Nicholas Cook, William Rothstein, Edward T. Cone, Joel Lester and others would give a different answer. Yet after his paper ended, Kamien asked: “any questions?” There was deep silence in the room. This would never happen in England or USA. Someone would react by asking a polite question that would question Kamien’s notion that performance must be subordinated to analysis.

Yossi wrote: “And if indeed scholars are less conversant with the latest academic shifts – how should this affect the way we view their scholarship, if we still value it as solid?”

I agree with you that there is much to learn from scholars who are less conversant with the latest academic shifts. A scholar that I value his research as not only ‘solid’ but also very interesting is Ethan Haimo. Much of what I know about Schoenberg is from reading his articles and books. It is true that Haimo can be seen as a formalist. However, he too is well aware of how society and culture affect a composer (and not only the other way around).

Moreover, there are ‘New’ musicologists who write in an unclear manner, do not conduct thorough research, and their arguments don’t stand scrutiny.

There are various levels of scholarship both in ‘new’ and traditional musicology; however, it would be misguided to assume from this that everything is relative and that the shift in the academic world (that happened almost twenty years ago!) is merely fashion.

Joseph Kerman wrote: ‘Certainly the original masters of analysis left no doubt that for them analysis was an essential adjunct to a fully articulated aesthetic value system. Heinrich Schenker always insisted on the superiority of the towering products of the German musical genius. Sir Donald Tovey pontificated about “the main stream of music” and on occasion developed this metaphor in considerable detail. It is only in more recent times that analysts have avoided value judgments and adapted their work to a format of strictly corrigible propositions, mathematical equations, set-theory formulations, and the like - all this, apparently, in an effort to achieve the objective status and hence the authority of scientific inquiry. Articles on music composed after 1950, in particular, appear sometimes to mimic scientific papers in the way that South American bugs and flies will mimic the dreaded carpenter wasp. In a somewhat different adaptation, the distinguished analyst Allen Forte wrote an entire small book, The Compositional Matrix, from which all affective or valuational terms (such as “nice” or “good”) are meticulously excluded. The same tendency is evident in much recent periodical literature.’

Yossi wrote: ‘Finally, what shifts do you have in mind—from the 1970s?—that the Israeli academia has not caught up with yet?’

The shifts in musicology occurred at the early 1990s. In other fields in the world they can be tracked back to the 1970s.

Thank you, Yossi, for your comment on ‘The issue of Hebrew vs. English’. It is especially enlightening to see how the academy can discourage people from writing in Hebrew since ‘you must publish in peer-reviewed journals, and those, alas, tend to be in English’. I hope that this issue will be discussed in the conference.

Yossi wrote: ‘The cliché that the young hold the promise to the future needs no further beatings from me’

It is of course true that not all young scholars are promising. Writing good musicology is a serious and hard struggle. Yet, it is true that the younger scholars are more open to assimilate changes than older scholars. There are exceptions to this, Jonathan Dunsby and Eric Clarke are good examples for scholars who changed during the decades and kept themselves at the forefront of academic research.

I accept your criticism concerning Elisheva. It would have been better to approach her personally. Yet what was done was done (as we say in Hebrew). What she wrote was not that terrible: “4)If you were better acquainted with Israeli research, in musicology or other disciplines,you wouldn’t make such a sweeping claims about the poor quality of Israeli research. Anyone even remotely familiar with Israeli science and scholarship can find ample examples that we are not all as negligible or outdated as you claim. Not yet , considering the financial difficulties of ISraeli academia.” I felt that it would be more productive to discuss the issues themselves than attacking this or that person. Individuals (including those that I mention) are not the issue. We should discuss the greater cultural trends in Israeli research on music.

Elisheva is right that I have much to learn about Israeli research. This does not change the troubling fact that one can find in Israeli book shops amazing books such as Boaz Neumann’s Being-in-the-Weimar-Republic (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved Publishers, 2007 (in Hebrew!)) which deals with the history and culture of Germany in the 1920s in a highly original, professional and updated way; while in music one cannot find such books. Noiman’s book is better, I argue, than the English books written of the subject (at least those that I have read).

Why academic scholars from other fields than music are able to publish in Hebrew albeit the difficulties of budget and other scholarly limitations, and we seem to fail doing the very same thing in music?

One Response to “We seem to fail doing the very same thing in music”

  • Zecharia responded:

    Dear Avior Byron
    Accept my greetings for your exciting writing.
    Here are my short reflections on your comments:

    You wrote: ‘1) It was surprising to see the gap between Kamien’s accessible and interesting popular book Music: An Apreciation and his Schenkerian lecture on performance. Kamien presented complicated Schenkerian graphs that very few people where able to follow. However, this was less troubling than the basic premise behind his whole lecture. He seemed to argue that one should do such an analysis in order to perform the music. So you could see his complicated graphs, and then hear his wonderful piano playing, and you asked yourself: is it really necessary to do such analysis in order to play Beethoven? Wallace Berry, Eugene Narmore and others would argue that “yes”‘

    I agree with you that all recent years Roger displayed wonderful, at times magnificent Beethoven performances. His performances are based on his thoughts and structure organization, in fruitful following of H. Schenker’s teachings. I repeat: He organizes his Beethovenian thought and music according to Schenker. It does not matter that nobody (excluding very few initiated) understands what the Schenker formulas are about. Schenker himself was an excellent Beethoven performer and editor. Kamien knows Schenker intimately and very well, and apparently understands Beethoven through him. No doubt his excellent and convincing performances are a product of this knowledge (as you say he himself argues passionately to this point). Everyone hears Kamien’s convincing Beethoven, therefore Kamien’s argument for Schenker’s necessity is passively corroborated by everyone who listens to Kamiens’ Beethoven. The opinions of other musicologists or commentators do not constitute any sound argument in this regard. Would Kamien’s Beethoven sound less convincingly – and Kamien would nonetheless argue for Schenker’s necessity - then we could start citing other musicologists. Kamien is right in his position (it does not mean that his truth is the only one).

    You wrote: ‘2) Elisheva is right that I have much to learn about Israeli research. This does not change the troubling fact that one can find in Israeli book shops amazing books such as Boaz Neumann’s Being-in-the-Weimar-Republic (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved Publishers, 2007 (in Hebrew!)) which deals with the history and culture of Germany in the 1920s in a highly original, professional and updated way; while in music one cannot find such books. Neumann’s book is better, I argue, than the English books written of the subject (at least those that I have read). Why academic scholars from other fields than music are able to publish in Hebrew albeit the difficulties of budget and other scholarly limitations, and we seem to fail doing the very same thing in music?’

    There are too few musicologists in Israel to develop fruitful overall discourse. From this hyper-minority position Israel itself is presumed by everybody who sees himself as serious West-looking musicologist-person – as a political pariah, a niche, philosophically a non-important international player (with sorrow I agree with this feeling). This feeling causes people to refrain from even trying to assess universal problems with courageous independent mind. Add to this the thin and meek inner dialogue (and the financial starvation), and you will understand why nobody hear dares to write independent sovereign overviews. Did you hear about someone’s independent view on something? The last one, I think (MAY BE I AM WRONG) was Varda Nishri zal, regarding Messiaen. And those who try to do it nowadays are frequently seen with deep suspicion as not sufficiently intelligent…
    This is – in my view – our core problem.

    Byron’s respone: http://www.bymusic.org/blog/2008/05/Performance-and-Analysis-response-Zecharia.html

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